GM Advice:
Dungeons That Make Sense

By Shamus
on Oct 8, 2008
Filed under:
Tabletop Games

It’s the classic D&D dungeon: A 15×10 room with a black pudding and a treasure chest and a tapestry on the wall. Next room: Some bugbears and a trapped floor. Next room: Locked door, hidden passage, and a skeleton or something.

This is more or less what you end up with if you follow the directions given to new Game Masters. In fact, I’m pretty sure the D&D 3.5 DMG had a table to be used specifically for “populating” dungeon space. The idea being that you just doodle some connected rooms and roll the dice to fill them. This is actually pretty fun for those that just want a quick game of “Kill the monsters and take their stuff”. Some groups go in for this sort of thing, but I’d never be able to sit through it. How could you roleplay this? More importantly, systems like this fly apart very quickly when you have creative players. If you’re in the mood for that sort of game, I’d much rather we just bust out our copies of Diablo II and let the computer handle the paperwork. The strength of tabletop games is that you can (try to) do anything that comes to mind:

We’ll wait until they’re asleep, sneak in, and poison their water supply. Then we’ll wait a day and go in to mop up.

But the randomly-generated spaces don’t have the level of detail to allow for this sort of cunning. There is no water supply. The place might have beds, but the inhabitants probably just stand in place 24/7 and stare at the walls, or wander aimlessly. The place is shallow and static.

I think dungeons like this are poison to a group, because it teaches players that they can’t be too clever. If creative ideas like the water-poisoning one above lead to several minutes of DM floundering and some obvious ad-hoc changes to the dungeon, then it doesn’t feel satisfying when they outsmart the place. They came up with the answer first, and then the GM designed a question to fit.

Aside from dialog and fighting, there isn’t much interaction going on in these places. Just roll the dice and get through it. I’m a big believer in making “dungeons” – which includes any interior space with guys and rooms – make as much sense as possible. It’s not that hard, and it adds a lot of depth for your players. The places should actually tell a story of their own. This is particularly true when you’re talking about a place inhabited by intelligent creatures.

I think this is pretty well understood, and most people view random dungeons as a Bad Thing. Or at the very least, a Not Ideal Thing. But I know some people flounder when trying to make their own. Where do you start? How do you know what to put in each room?

Here is my approach to designing the classic indoor encounter space:

The first step is to make your map. When you lay it out, don’t just slap down square rooms and doors. Think about how it came it exist. Is it ruins? Caves? An abandoned mine? Tunneling is fantastic work, and people don’t do it because they’re bored. This location was built or dug for a reason. I start by imagining how this place would be designed. If it’s a natural cave then it doesn’t have interior doors and square rooms. If it’s an old mine, then it’s probably not going to have secret “doors” or hidden compartments all over the place. If it’s an old monastery then there probably aren’t trap doors and spiked pits built into the stonework. (Stuff like that might be added later, by subsequent inhabitants, but people don’t normally design places to live where they’ll have to worry about setting off their own deathtraps every time they go out to take a piss.)

Once you have the place designed, then you can start filling it with detail by imagining how you might arrange things if you lived there. Start with this series of questions:

Who lives here now and why? All too often the answer is “because this is a dungeon and dungeons have things to fight”. That will get you through the session, but it’s a lot more interesting to come up with a reason for why the current inhabitants moved in.

  1. The bandits who live here use the place because it’s a short distance from a road where they can waylay travelers.
  2. The cultists use these ruins because they’re secluded, leaving the cult members free to do their freaky cult stuff without civilized people taking notice.
  3. The Kobolds kive here because Kobolds will live any dang place they can crawl into.

You get the idea. You might not need this in the game, but having something in mind and jotted into the corners of your notes can be a lifesaver if the players do something crazy or unexpected. You’ll have a foundation on which to build whatever impromptu fiction the situation requires.

What do they eat? If it’s alive, it eats. Are these pirates? Then there needs to be barrels of provisions stacked someplace, and there needs to be a lot of them. Are these feral humanoids that catch rats and eat them raw? Then you should see tails and bones around, and maybe rat traps. Or perhaps these creatures go outside to hunt for food, in which case the entrance probably sees very regular traffic.

Smart creatures will go out of their way to have a good variety. Sure, you can live on basic staples, but you’ll use spices if you can get them. You’ll want wine, coffee, or tea on occasion. Picture what these people eat and then stock their cupboards appropriately.

Where do they eat? Do they cook meals and eat at tables? (If so, where do they cook? And don’t forget that fires need ventilation and fuel.) Do they stand in the hallways and scarf down food? Do they eat outside? Where do the scraps go? Do they use utensils and dishes?

Where do they get water? If it’s alive, it drinks. Is there a natural water source inside? A well outside? A nearby stream? Acquiring, storing, and consuming water should produce some activity.

Where do they “go”? If it’s alive, it produces waste. Where do they leave it? Did they dig a latrine? Do they have a room set aside for that business? Do they go outside? People need to go a couple of times a day, and they try to do it away from their water source.

Where do they sleep? Beds? Bedrolls on the floor? A nest in the corner? Which room would you sleep in if you lived here? You wouldn’t want to sleep too close to a door or window where you’d be exposed to intruders or the elements. You wouldn’t want to be too close to the latrine. (Nor too far!) You’d probably want to be reasonably close to the food.

How is the place lit? Torches are not lightbulbs, and they do not hang on the wall and burn forever. If we’re underground, it should be pitch black. If the inhabitants use daylight, then there need to be open windows, which provides and easy entry point for players. If they use lanterns, then there needs to be a good supply of oil somewhere. Gallons.

What do they do all day? How do they amuse themselves? Archery? A deck of cards? Books? Musical instruments?

By the time you’ve answered these questions you’ve created a living, breathing place that players can explore. You’ll have detail appearing on the map that isn’t just guys and loot, and which will give the place credibility. The scenery tells a story about how people lived, which players can piece together from the clues they see. Suddenly the inhabitants will be moving around inside and living their lives instead of standing still and waiting to be converted into XP.

Once you’ve worked out how they live, then add the traps and loot. This should be easy now. Where would you put your defenses and guards? Your traps? Where would you stash your valuables? These questions answer themselves once you know how the place is used. Nobody with a wisdom score over 5 is going to put traps between their bed and the latrine. It doesn’t make sense for them to put their valuables outside the protection of guards and traps.

Running through these steps of designing a space and then having your occupants “move in” is a lot more interesting to me than rolling dice and writing down lists of monsters and loot. I think it’s probably the same amount of work, but the results allow for much more interesting and varied gameplay.

I have an example of a dungeon crawl I ran here, way back in (if you can believe it) post number twenty-six. (You’re currently reading post 1,922!) That dungeon follows most of the principles I have here, although in retrospect I think the trap doors are pretty hard to justify.

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  1. K says:

    I am not sure if people actually still use those dungeons (the 10×15 ones with the orc in the middle). I’ve never ran a dungeon crawl which wasn’t in a module to begin with. Usually it’s more like “There’s a keep with a princess, let’s hear some plans.”

    Ohhh, my first first.

  2. Shamus says:

    K: Anecdotes I read here and there seem to suggest that yes, people really do run random dungeons. Some people also smoke cigarettes, which is just as bad for you.

    • Well... says:

      I’ve done some studying of ancient crypts, catacombs, coliseums.

      To the people that talk about treasure looting; the Egyptian tombs weren’t mass looted until the 1800’s to 1900’s. Things get lost. Even giant pyramids of wealth. Sometimes what’s wealth to one culture isn’t wealth to another, leading it to being ignored.

      Yes, they do build tunnels that switch back and run around randomly in circles, to dead ends, etc. Storage rooms, burial chambers, mining pits that ran out of ore and therefore became useless to keep digging through, etc. There’s a million and one reasons that you’ll have a map filled with tunnels and corridors. Use your favorite web browser and start looking at christian catacombs in italy or rome, you’ll start seeing the same kinds of maps as you see in ‘totally random’ maps drawn up for D&D.

      Some of those tunnels cross above or below each other, some places are forgotten and found later on, etc, etc. All this leads to a massive amount of tunnels. We’re talking about underground here, its not like you can jump in a plane, or even climb a hill, and look out into a valley and discover all buildings, roads, etc, and say “what would make sense?” to yourself. I imagine that orcs, goblin, kobolds, and so on, have a better “knack” for direction, elevation, and grade of slope by natural sense. That doesn’t mean things can’t be lost.

      Tombs, burial chambers, and wealth depositories throughout the ages have gone completely undisturbed for 1000 years or more. Conan’s not unrealistic, finding a badass sword just lying around. Its not unrealistic to find gold and glass covered headdresses on dead kings, and so on.

      Animals usually laze about all day. Cats, dogs, coyotes, they often spend a majority of their time in their comfort zone. This could be a bed, a specific small location in a house or a yard, a hole dug into the side of a ditch that no longer carries water, and so on. They’re perfectly comfortable just hanging out “staring at the wall”. A race that builds underground, has haphazard construction rules about digging compared to “so smart humans”, is likely going to have differences of lifestyles as well. We are talking about the opposite of common sense, here. They live underground. Why don’t humans all live underground? It is not common sense. To us it isn’t logical. They do one illogical thing by human standards, why not more?

      The reason you have “orc in a room” is because the world is a Schrodinger box. Yes, it is and should be a “living thing”, that is changes can and should happen. If a group of PCs scout out an orc in a room by sneaking a look around a corner, and they’re just standing there, and then they come back 8 hours later, and its still the same, and then they come back 24 hours later, and this is still the same, and this could repeat forever, then you have a good argument for “orc in a room staring at a wall just for combat encounter purposes” syndrome.

      I assume being more Native American-like or African-like in general (life’s good enough with just enough, why do more), they’re probably not going to start feeling the itch to draw giant realism paintings or making precision crafted pillars. Good enough is good enough for them and that’s as far as they go. The two real cultural areas I mentioned spent 1000 or more years without any “advanced” building, if we were to judge buildings on a scale of rudimentary to highly articulate. Columns, square buildings, tall, brick and mortar, metal infused, these are technology advances just in architecture, and this isn’t what you see in general for those cultural areas, but from Mesopotamia to Rome to England, you see a rapid development in size and material and shape of buildings.

      Orcs, goblins, etc, are all less intelligent as a general rule. It is likely their daily lives as well as their construction methods are going to be on similar scale to that, pressured only by the necessities of making tunnels and rooms which don’t collapse. The Underdark, etc, places where there’s no energy, don’t necessarily have to be quite that way. Assuming such a cavernous area could exist, even space for biodiversity leads from bacteria to lichen, to foraging animals, to carnivores, and so on. Plenty of animals live in “no energy” areas in the ocean. Often they make their own light, or have a “sense” of objects around them by detecting disturbances in the water, or heat, or whatever. At the bottom of the ocean, many animals and plants live next to volcanic heat vents. How is it not analogous to say that the Underdark is simply a land-based example of the massive depths of oceans where all kinds of life, including giant squid, live in complete darkness, and therefore “live in a place with no energy”?

      While we may not be comfortable with te notion of 10′ or greater width corridors underground, it is possible and is done on a daily basis. They’re called subways. They’re no more special than anything else. Load bearing pillars, designs to draw energy and weight away from the center of the room towards ‘load points’, are sometimes, even frequently supported by arches. The Catacombs of the ancient world do the same thing.

      In most visions of catacombs or underground tunnels to get people from point A to B without being seen, the one constant is ROCK. Digging into and building your world in rock heavy ground is a perfect way to get rooms that are larger than 5 or 10′. They’re naturally stronger. This leads back to why tunnels can cross over each other or under, why they can exist side by side to other tunnels, leading to maze-like or labyrinth designs. Even the Palace of Knossos and Kowloon were ancient and modern day ABOVE GROUND labyrinths, with dead ends, secret doors, switch backs, and long, meandering corridors.

      Assuming it was a mining operation 50 years ago, they likely would dig towards significant ore deposits and keep going until it petered out, at which point they’d likely go back to another sign of ore deposit back along their round and go from there. This would effectively lead to dead ends and even ‘close calls’ of tunnels touching. Has anyone played Dig-Dug? Eventually, there will be a cave-in at some point, leading to that being cut off. If there’s no pressing need to get back in, it’ll be forgotten about until 50 yeas pass and a new group finds this mining operation and decides to exploit the holes that are already here. They might dig everywhere else, and then, by accident, stumble on the chamber that was cut off by collapse, leading to the reopening and a haphazard appearance of the tunnel design if we were to take an aerial view of it.

      When we get to races that actually live underground and LIKE it, giant corridors are no small task, but they’re definitely a viable option. Buttressing, pillars, curved architecture (I’ve always wondered how wide you could make an underground floor if you started at the top with a tiny triangular section a bit like those Swedish house roofs designed to avoid breaking under snow/water weight), the use of natural rock to dig into and the fact that they spend all their time in this tiny city of theirs and they’re probably not going to be satisfied with tiny holes. Buildings above ground for medieval or ancient peasants are likely to be small because why waste time and resources and you’re going to be outside this structure in a wide space most of the time anyway. On the other hand, digging into mountainsides is going to GET resources, as well as create more living space.

  3. Claire says:

    I’d probably really enjoy playing in your games… I once played a self-conscious barbarian who was obsessed with stockpiling (and using) soap after a crush informed him that his natural musk was less than alluring. Imagine my disappointment when he found himself in a world where apparently soap only existed in the nebulous PHB-store.

  4. The longer I GM, the less I tend to bother with maps of interior spaces (broader terrain, yes). Even the one time, some years back now, where for particular strange reasons there *was* a classic dungeon thingie with lots of strange, dangerous monsters and traps all over it (put there by a near-omnipotent being with a twisted sense of humour), I pretty much just designed the creatures and the kinds of spaces I wanted the players to encounter, and then as they explored told them they got there. After all, if the layout is more or less arbitrary, what’s behind the next door can be whatever you feel like it ought to be. If you’re not going to make concessions to logic in the first place, why concede a static layout to logic? Instead just rig the encounters for drama/tension.

    But normally I’ve found that if where people are going emerge from a combination of the antagonists the characters end up with and their often devious plans to deal with those antagonists, it’s hard to predict where they will go. So I concentrate on knowing the antagonists themselves well, what their motivations, capabilities, plans, and approach are. I don’t know *where* the PCs will be opposing them, but at least I can be fairly sure *that* the PCs will be opposing them. So I’m better off putting my energy into figuring them out than worrying too much about their home base unless there are particular reasons why it should be really cool and/or unusual. If it’s normal, I can come up with whatever people need pretty much on the fly.

  5. Nixorbo says:

    I was in a group once where we were sent to clear out some temple that had been overrun by the undead. So what one guy did was he filled a bag of holding with holy water and then emptied it inside the temple.

    Questionably legal? Sure. Unquestionably effective? Goodness yes.

  6. Burning says:

    I haven’t played in years (approaching the 2 decade point actually) but the packaged modules of my youth were usually not any more logically thought out than random dungeons. To be fair, I didn’t notice the flaws until later. Monster that needs food behind a deadly trap with no alternate access route? No problem!

    Random dungeons are fun when you are at the stage where battle-battle-trap-battle is your idea of a fun time. I made a lot of them, which no one ever actually went through.

    I would think of them more like junk-food than cigarettes. Empty calories, not good for your whole diet, but nice to munch on from time to time.

  7. The Meal says:

    Loving the return to tabletop RPG articles, and especially the GM Advice series!

  8. karln says:

    PLG, I guess Gamists would argue that by making a static (though illogical) map beforehand, you are helping ensure the players’ success/failure is ‘fair’ in the sense that the GM is neither deliberately helping or hindering them, whether on purpose or subconsciously. If they stride into a room and promptly die to a spiked pit trap, it’s because that’s what was on the map, not because the GM just decided on the spot that’s what would happen.

    Personally I prefer Narrativist games, but that’s not for everyone.

  9. Axcalibar says:

    For a while I used Dungeon Keeper to layout my dungeons. In that you tend to place areas for food and rest around the hub of the dungeon and branch out from there with training rooms, libraries, and torture chambers. It produced some fairly sensical dungeon layouts I thought.

  10. Jeff says:

    We still use the 5×5 with an Orc and a chest containing pie, though.

    Shamus, have you ever played Evil Genius?

  11. Jonathan says:

    Hey thanks for the post! I was just in the making of a city built in a mountain with a strange mix of inhabitants and a few of yours ideas will help make the place more logical (as much as a 24 levels city filled with greedy devil, plant-like creatures, humans, drows and other abominable creatures make sense ;)). I already had ideas for the “Who lives here now and why?”, which is basically a free economy city that you can pretty much trade anything freely…you can call this more trafficking than bartering, but yeah… Some kind of Tatooine for the feel of the city.

    As for the ideas I took from your post, I’ll put the first few sub levels as an old abandoned mine instead of just being burrowed tunnel and add somewhere where they grow something to eat which I completely forgot earlier. A few levels deeper will be inhabitants that lived in natural caves for ages and then they just expended after many years.

    I normally try to make everything stick together as you describe in your article, but sometimes I believe it can become something negative to be too logical, or else I should say that to make a good dungeon you need to think outside the box and redefine what is logical. I’d love to have an example, but my brain is fried today at work.

  12. Hal says:

    This is one of the reasons I love the Dungeonscape supplement. While there’s some interesting mechanics for things (a new class, different terrain/wall/door types, traps, etc.), what I thought was the best part of the book was the large range of suggestions in building dungeons that made sense, both practically and thematically.

    It also gave a lot of “outside the box” thinking in regards to classic elements like traps and living spaces, again dependent on what the purpose/theme of your dungeon was.

  13. wintermute says:

    I picked up Central Casting: Dungeons several lifetimes ago, and it’s really pretty good at helping you to generate sensible dungeons. If you can find a copy, it’s well worth picking up.

    But yeah, I agree with Shamus. Work out how and why it was built (and by whom), and work out what’s happened since then (the wizard who built the tower died, but some of his creations live on, so orcs moved in to get new breeding stock for unusual war mounts, and then the lower basement flooded…) and you end up with a dungeon to remember.

  14. Ingvar says:

    Once upon a time, I did some testing of prospective modules for a Swedish RPG company and one of the phrases that sticks in mind is “it’s a military base, where are the toilets and showers?”

  15. coloquialist says:

    First post on your blog.. booya! Or something.

    I agree. I like to think of these places as having to be a “living breathing space” with an economy and ecosystem, and a purpose for things to be there.

    One of the best dungeons I ever made was me trying out D&D 4E. The scenario was Kobolds find an abandoned Monastary, and use it as a base to terrorize local farmers. The lvl 1 PCs come in and start Dungeon crawling. And find 3 really well Guarded and secured doors. The players (of course) assume treasure. These rooms contained a lvl 4 spider and 2 kobold corpses, a couple of skeleton warriors and 3 kobold corpses, and a nest of Lightning scorpions and 2 kobold corpses.

    The basic Idea being that the kobold clan Came in, found the current inhabitants of the dungeon: got their faces pounded in, and just shut and locked the doors rather than deal with it. These were the toughest conflicts of the crawl, and the players got virtually no treasure for it.

    I giggled to myself every time, the thief undid all three locks, the crude boulder trap, and the warrior removed the Pitons stopping the doors from opening.

  16. Dev Null says:

    One of my favorites is the stock-standard gamers 10′ corridor. Have you ever _seen_ a corridor made to be 10′ wide? Its a tremendous waste of space, so unless its the entrance to the queens audience chamber it tends to be not done. The hall in my house is pretty standard for modern at about 3′ wide and 8′ tall, and I happen to know that you can’t swing a sword in it without hitting something (don’t tell my wife; she hasn’t noticed the ding in the ceiling yet…) Most of the medieval buildings I’ve been in were much more cramped for space.

    Mind you, back in the sad old days of 1st ed I can recall working out how a high-level wizard would craft a stronghold entirely by magic, and there were a bunch of spells like Transmute Rock to Earth (or something like that) that affected a 10′ cube. That guy had a lot of 10′ corridors planned, before the GM relented and let me change the shape (without changing the volume) with a few ritual preparations.

  17. Woerlan says:

    It’s funny. Normally, you would think that ruins shouldn’t have any real treasure (barring the odd Pharoah’s tomb). It would normally follow that either:

    a) Whatever cataclysm or horrible event that created the ruin also destroyed most of the valuables.

    b) The inhabitants who abandoned the ruin took everything of value with them. Alternatively, if the ruin was create by an invading force, then they’re the ones who took the valuables.

    c) Thieves, tomb raiders, or other adventurers have already taken the valuables and left nothing behind.

    There has to be a good reason why stuff of value has been left where it is. And most of the time it’s not good news for adventurers.

  18. Deoxy says:

    Heh – I’ve noticed these sorts of things before, too, and they can be pretty funny (in fact, I think entire web-comics have been made of nothing but these issues).

    In fact, one of the (many) reasons I find the Forgotten Realms so silly is the vast Underdark. Yeah, magic and stuff, but really… an entire fricking other world, multiple societies, etc, in a basically closed system with no source of energy. Um… yeah. (Another reason is the ridiculous over-abundance of magic items – McDonald’s doesn’t give out scrolls of Wish in their Happy Meals, they give out RINGS of wishing!)

    coloquialist’s idea is AWESOME, and I love it! Note that the scorpions and the spider should have been revenously hungry, which makes combat fun. :-) Notice also why undead are so popular (they last in such situations).

    Dev Null’s point is well-taken, and something I’ve noticed myself (having been in some really old real-world castles), but I would counter that with this: who wants to deal with the squeezing rules?!? Ick! :-)

    Woerlan hits on a great point, too – meeting the requirements for that are why in 3rd edition, it mentioned that the “standard” world was greatly declined from some past height of civilization, leaving ruins around with stuff in them that no one has gotten to yet. That always seemed a bit of a stretch to me…

    ..until the “WMD” issue came up in politics, and I did a little digging. Turns out that there are vast bunkers under Berlin from WWII that are still not fully explored (seriously – they found a plane in one in the 90s, with gas and bullets ready to go – well, not ready anymore, of course), that the US has dozens of documented burials of chemical weapons from WWI that we still haven’t found, and that finding un-detonated bombs from WWII is still common place in some areas of southeast Asia. At least as of the late 80s, there were still at least a few apartments in Vienna sitting empty since WWII, with broken glass and bomb shrapnel in them.

    So yeah, stuff gets lost, and the world is a big place to lose it in.

  19. KujakuDM says:

    There are situations however where a lot of these dont matter.

    The undead tomb, or my personal favorite the outsider guarded dungeon.

    Neither need worry about alot of the ‘living needs’ and aside from a little bit of functional insanity for bieng isolated for years, it works fine.

  20. Gamercow says:

    My favorite quirk to dungeons: B Team. The guy who hired the players didn’t have a ton of confidence in them, or they’re taking too long, or double crossed them, or whatever, and sent in another team of adventurers to clean out the place. I’ve actually ran two groups that entered the same dungeon from different sides of the mountain. Lead to funny stuff. When I ran it with an NPC group as B Team, I tried to logically think how they would have proceeded. Players take too long, that treasure is gone!

    This ties into rule 1 in my book: The campaign world is a living entity, and things happen off screen ALL the time. Plan ahead and have set days/times when things happen.(orc invasion, flood, typhoon, dead king) No, you aren’t going to use some of it, but it adds flavor and depth, if you ask me.

  21. Kevin says:

    All of Shamus’ suggestions are a lot easier than they sound, and after you’ve done it a few times, they really become second nature. Not to pimp for WotC, but the Dungeon Tiles are really excellent for this kind of thing, since they offer much of what you need and it’s all right in front of you as you create your map. (Pools of water, food stores, tables and such.) I make my maps, snap a pic with the digital camera, print the pic and bag everything up for later. I usually print all my notes on the back of the map I’ve made. Very easy, very convenient, and the players love ’em.

  22. Stefan says:

    Bookmarked!

    Though i must say – while critical, this is the sort of stuff that just needs to be done real quick, in broad strokes. It is (IMHO) more important that the “dungeon” have a compelling story related to the characters’ (or just a character’s) adventure – it is not enough for the place to be alive, it must also have meaning.

    And, let’s not forget, it also has to have compelling and fun encounter spaces for the core tactical combat game! (But this article is talking about the roleplaying, so i digress.)

  23. Kiwipolish says:

    I know people rag on D&D for starting that trend, but I’ve actually been rather impressed with 4e’s modules in avoiding that. For example, their modules include things like the goblins leaving the bones of the rats they eat on one particular staircase into their lair, both as a trash pit and as an alarm system (the adventurers stepped on the bones, which crunched a lot). Just a lot of little things that made me go “Oh, clever little buggers” even though it’s a rather simple thing to do.

  24. Andrew says:

    Speaking of Dungeon Keeper and Evil Genius, this post made me think of Dwarf Fortress – for those who aren’t familiar with the game, it’s a city builder/ dungeon crawl, where the player starts off trying to build a working underground city, then when he gets deep enough to awake the demons (or if he’s me, messes up the plumbing and floods the whole place), he can return in adventure mode and find the city overrun with random monsters.

  25. Rob Conley says:

    I know I am being bit of a salesman here but two years ago I got the project of redoing the old Judges Guild module Fortress Badabaskor for D&D 3.5.

    The original definitely had it charm and strong points but it had a healthy dose of an orc on the room syndrome.

    I pride myself on being able to keep 90% of the original, revising it with 3.5 stats and making the dungeon make sense as Shamus points out.

    You find both the original and my version here

    http://www.rpgnow.com/advanced_search_result.php?keywords=badabaskor&x=0&y=0&quicksearch=1&search_filter=&filters=&search_free=&search_in_description=1&search_in_author=1&search_in_artist=1

    And a preview of the fourth level here

    http://www.goodman-games.com/4600preview.html

  26. Elbow Surprise says:

    I once ran a campaign where one of the ongoing mysteries was the disappearance of random cows from a local field. It was constantly a backdrop to the main plot, and without any real clues or reward, and a slightly crazed farmer, the PCs just kinda ignored it for a few sessions.

    Fast forward to a plot-important dungeon, and the captured dragon used as a slave to protect a valuable treasure. I describe the room and mentioned a weird portal near the side, littered with bones in front of it, next to a natural spring pool. Halfway through the battle, a cow comes through the portal. The look on their faces was priceless, lol.

  27. Blurr says:

    I’m loving these posts back on the topic of DMing. I’m a really new GM (6 months to a year), and these posts are really helping me out. Might I ask what started these posts on this subject? Your last one was in July.

  28. Shamus says:

    Blurr: I have about a half dozen of these little stub articles laying around about GM’ing. A couple of weeks or so ago Strangeite and a few others mentioned how much they missed this stuff, which reminded me of the old stubs and prompted me to pick them up and dust them off.

  29. Man, I feel so ‘on the outside looking in.’ I’ll admit, whenever I have a “dungeon” idea for my players it’s rarely ever populated. It’s usually more the ‘explore this religious abandoned temple from an ancient civilization.’ Sure, there are some traps and some puzzlish elements, but never any living creatures.

    And yet somehow, we find a way to have fun. :P

  30. Hawk says:

    Very Simulationist of you Shamus. While I prefer and applaud that style of design, I’ll also note that it isn’t strictly necessary in most cases — you need a nod toward the appearance of realistic dungeon ecology, which is different than actual realistic dungeon ecology. And you can mostly wing it on the fly with that stuff.

    For example, you can spend a lot of time worrying about where the kobolds poop when you make up your dungeon, but if the players never ask about where the kobolds poop, it’s just wasted prep time. I find there is a happy medium between “realistic details” and “streamlined game preparation”, the in-between of which can be filled it by a fine GMing technique I call “winging it”. but then, I tend toward Gamist with a minor in Simulationist, myself.

  31. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I rarely use dungeons these days(although,one might argue that fortresses,vast vilas and military bases are just above ground dungeons),but I too like to follow your logic when I create one.Although,some of those can be averted at moderate and higher level dungeons,especially in a magic heavy setting.A mage could easily illuminate the whole dungeon,provide numerous sources of food and water,and even get rid of waste and trash(although it would probably be done by his apprentices).Mages shoulnt be just “the guys we use in war”.And stacking them just with battle spells is lame,especially if they are surprised by the intrusion.Although,if you dont use memorizing spells rules,you dont have to worry about this.

  32. Jason says:

    My dungeons tend to be outside the normal “underground cavern complex.” Most of the time my dungeons are actually buildings, like mansions. Why would a group of cultists live in a dank dungeon when they can kill the current manor occupants and use it for themselves? And the most common enemies my PCs fight tend to be human. If the most common race on the planet is human, then it stands to reason that most enemies they players fight should be as well

  33. McNutcase says:

    The players shouldn’t have to ask where the kobolds poop. They should find it themselves.

    Preferably by falling in.

    On a serious note, I’ll be following this in designing the “dungeons” for my campaign; although the first underground complex is likely to put my players off going underground for life, if I play it right…

  34. GregT_314 says:

    If you’ve got players who want complex societies and ecosystems, why the hell are you playing D&D? It’s not built for that, and there are plenty of good systems that are.

    You have to play to genre. If you go to see an Indiana Jones movie, you expect Indy to find the treasure by delving into caves, whipping things, and wisecracking, not by painstakingly leading a team of students in a methodical dig over several years. If you go to see a Bond film, you know Bond’s going to do his spy-work using a lot of action, womanising, and gadgetry, not by painstakingly cross-referencing information from a variety of sources against the background of current foreign policy.

    D&D is a game about exploring 10 x 10 stone corridors, killing monsters, and finding loot. It does that very well. But if you’re looking for the sort of game in which players can use tactics such as “poison the water supply” for heaven’s sake go play World of Darkness or Shadowrun, where that kind of machination is not only supported but actively encouraged.

    While I’m commenting here though, can I say I loved what you had to say a few days ago about player arrests. Great insight, thanks.

  35. Ericc says:

    Great post. This actually applies to any system. I learned this lesson when my players started building their own keeps. So being the bookkeeping nerd I was, I researched how castles and dungeons were built, the layouts and the like. None of the players liked going through those motions, they just wanted the end result. So I did all the work and gave the players the results.

    When I started translating the work into the game prep I spent time on, I found it fitting in my Cyberpunk and Vampire campaigns. The players really spent more time roleplaying their way in the game.

    Again, great post. I’d like to see more of this. I love the other stuff, but reading the game design makes the critiques of video games resonate more. It shows your chops for newer readers.

    I’d like to see more of your analysis on Board Games. Like Twighlight Imperium, Zombies!, etc. I think it would really be nice.

  36. TalrogSmash says:

    Dear GregT_314,

    Original D&D and versions 3.0, 3.5, and 4.0 are as you described.
    Advanced D&D and the second edition however are for full simulation role playing. Monsters didn’t drop cash unless they were smart enough to know how to use it. Some of them you had to skin or dissect and only if you knew how.
    Compare the level of detail in the 2nd ed. monster manual with the 3.0 one. There is NO comparison. Sleep cycles, family groupings, mating habits!! You’re lucky if the 3.0 manual knows if the creature is nocturnal or not!
    Many gamers chose to stick with 2nd because of the extreme dumbing down for those who just wanted to crpg with dice instead of their keyboard. Or we house rule 3.0 until it is basically 2nd with some new clothes.

  37. bryce says:

    @Hawk: Anytime my character ventures underground, the first thing I ask the DM is “Where do the Kolbolds poop…” If we were playing GURPS, I probably could get a few points by turning that into a disadvantage…

    @Andrew and well…everyone else: DWARF FORTRESS! In answer to Shamus’s question of what person designs a trap between your bed and the latrine should heed the tale of Koganῠsan…better known as Boatmurdered!

    It’s a bit of a read, but it is oh so worth it to see the pay off. See how a dungeon devolves and gets abandoned and why elephants and dwarves are natural enemies…

  38. Shamus says:

    Greg: What are you on about? Complex societies? I suggested making sure you give the bad guys a kitchen and a toilet, not invent a language for them and round out their culture with music and well-defined legal customs.

    What I outlined isn’t any more work than just rolling dice and filling rooms with random crap.

    Like Ericc said above, this can apply to any system.

  39. Telas says:

    Welcome back to tabletop posts. Many happy returns!

    I pretty much follow your example, but I found that the extra time spent designing a ‘sensible dungeon’ is well spent if you turn it into something more than ‘kill the tenants and take their stuff’. I usually throw in at least a “why are they here?” or “where did they come from?” mystery that requires a bit more from the players than merely converting monsters to XP.

  40. Teppesh says:

    While the D&D system sometimes has difficulty accommodating the random improvisations that player characters are wont to come up with, if the DM is flexible enough and also giving enough to let them enjoy their success, a good time can be had. It’s all about figuring out where to put the details, and to have blank space where you can make stuff up should the players be more curious about the sanitation system of the goblin fortress than they are about the locations of the guard towers. Above all, make it interesting.

  41. Scipio says:

    I totally hate it when my character enters a non-descript room. As a DM, it’s not really important to spend the time to figure out where the goblins poop, it’s just an easy way to determine how the dungeon should be laid out. As a player, I just want the room to have a clear purpose. (assuming you’re in a designed space, as opposed to natural caverns or some such.)

    If the DM says “you enter an ancient kitchen,” I can figure a lot of the details of the place myself. I can also get creative and ask about details the DM never thought about, but that would reasonably be in an old kitchen, and potentially use them to my advantage.

  42. Zaxares says:

    Yep, I do all of the above for my dungeons, Shamus. :) Things get more complex once you have multiple opposing factions living in the same “dungeon”. I also usually like to throw in at least one room/feature/item/encounter that’s entirely unrelated to the adventure at hand. Just to keep the players guessing. Plus, they can also serve as nice adventure hooks for future adventures.

  43. Veekie says:

    @bryce

    The PCs exploring Boatmurdered would just need to pull the right lever for super fun stuff…which they would, being PCs, and watch all the nearby settlements and vegetation go to blazes.

  44. Seax says:

    I started to wonder why this site is called “twenty sided”…

    Shamus, those were very good pointers. In the past I added a few more:
    1. If the current inhabitants did not build the dungeon, who did, and what was its original purpose?
    The building should cater for the original purpose and then adjusted to the new one. It is a little more work, but a lot more credible, for me. It can also be used for a sub-plot, when the current inhabitants missed some hidden part that reveals loot (and information) from the past.

    2. Is there anyone outside that knows about the building and its layout?
    Someone that lived there in the past, a prisoner that got free, history books, particular layout of a building of that sort (for example, temples tend to have a specific layout)..
    this adds a lot of depth with little work, and makes the players hunt for information before diving in (as long as that information actually helps them). There’s a lot of room for roleplaying and creativity when gathering information in advance, and the players tend to make better smarter plans other than “bust the door and kick ass”.
    Of course, that information might not be precise anymore (changed over time, bad resolution to begin with, etc.)

  45. Avilan the Grey says:

    Except for in bought modules, our gaming group used to have fairly realistic dungeons to crawl (maybe not as realistic as this, we were all mid teens when we were playing, but quite so. Especially the fact that the inhabitants in the complex(es) were aware of each other, and that monsters that did not fit in, didn’t exist in the dungeon. Most dungeons that we played was either basements in ruins (and therefore usually only having one level, maybe two, or natural caves with all that means (we were all Animal Planet geeks etc too so our natural caves were very realistic).

    One time we were tried to something fun though, it was a “typical dungeon” dungeon that was set up by an adventurer as his tomb, to get even with everyone that had made him go through all pointless dungeons in his career… :)

    Things like trapdoors, trip wires, eternally burning torches etc etc. Plus (magically summoned or controlled) monsters that totally ignored everything outside their room as long as the door remained closed.

    The funniest part was when we found a secret passage into the dungeon behind the dungeon, that was maintenance tunnels, that servants and monsters used to reset traps, spy on adventurers and feed the magical beasts etc etc.

    So in fact, it turned out to be a realistic dungeon after all!

  46. Tommi says:

    Realistic dungeons are extremely beneficial for simple dungeon crawling games. Poisoning food and water, making ambushes near a watering hole and devastating large stocks of inventory are very much valid and interesting tactics. Combat is for the unimaginative, unskilled or unlucky.

  47. Althanis says:

    I have always tried to make my dungeons as realistic as practical. Most rooms usually have a purpose (otherwise, why build the damned thing in the first place), although the purpose doesn’t have to slap you in the face when you walk through the door. My handicap has always been a roleplaying group that has been more interested in ROLLplaying than ROLEplaying.

    My players once got locked into a small cavern complex by the local inhabitants (the Frost giants from the classic TSR module G2). When the players broke out after taking 9 hours to rest and relearn spells they had the audacity to complain that the giants had set up traps and killing zones to handle the player characters. One of the worst offenders actually accused me of nerfing his character while they rested because they were doing so well.

    Like PT Barnum said, there’s an idiot born every minute (sic)

  48. Heh. I remember running that module back in the day; something similar happened, but my gamers appreciated it. When they approached, the sentry spotted them and gave the alarm before the PCs took it out. So the PCs backed off and came back later. Unfortunately, the sentry was actually a giant two-headed *troll*, who upon regenerating explained exactly what had bushwhacked him and what bad news they looked like.
    So when the PCs came back, they found basically the whole fighting population of the place waiting for them in the main hall. There was a huge fight at the end of which only 1 or 2 PCs were left standing. Of course that did make the place much safer to explore afterward.

  49. Noumenon says:

    Poisoning the water supply doesn’t sound like any fun to me at all. You’re skipping all the fun combats and rooms. It’s kind of like taking the warp pipes in Super Mario Bros.

    Here is a random dungeon generator for everyone.

    I am pretty new to DMing, but I never have time to prep everything I can think of and I want to spend my time thinking “how can I make the bridge over the lava destructible so the skeletons can fall in and rise up as blazing skeletons” than “where do the skeletons poop”? My original DM always had the ecology make sense, but then I ran the module White Plume Mountain and found out how fun it is just to have a river flowing through the air at waist height or a magic water-filled pyramid with different monsters on each level. No more realism for me.

  50. Tizzy says:

    I haven’t played or mastered a dungeon like this in decades, and the way Shamus writes about it, it sounds pretty fun! Actually, it’s more fun to do with a DM. Whenever I play a computer D&D game, always dread going into dungeons because it’s the most boring part of the game, yet they always feel like they have to put three to six levels of it. Maybe because it’s easier to design and script than a bustling city.

    I’m playing PS:T right now, about to go into the catacombs of the undercity and I’m *not* looking forward to that. :-(

  51. Tizzy says:

    I’m going to date myself terribly here, but talking about games that went out of their way to have dungeons lying around with monsters and loot in a way that integrated seamlessly in the gameworld, wasn’t this the whole rationale behind Earthdawn?

    BTW, I’m very much of the opinion that game rules should not prevent you from running the kind of game your group likes. The fit might not be perfect, but the GM and players are in charge of the game, not the publisher!

  52. Felblood says:

    I used to make dungeons like this, and get upset when my players treated them like static environments. Now I just do the bare minimum needed to let them kill stuff. It’s all they’re going to notice anyway.

    Additionally, I have to second all the people who recommend playing Dwarf Fortress, or at least reading BoatMurdered.

    Even if nobody notices, you can have a blast building a huge dungeon, and the game will call you if you overlook something.

    The only thing you don’t have to keep track of is where your dwarves “go”, but between housing all your dwarves and getting dwarves and supplies to move in an efficient manner, you’ll have enough on your plate.

    A dungeon the size of an underground city should have hallways at least wide enough for two people to pass going opposette directions, and much wider hallways for the main atrerials. These aren’t hallways; they’re streets.

    Also, besides the obvious need to make the players explore every level, why are there no multiple story staircases, in the underground? A central staircase is far more efficient, though one should be careful to install landings large enough to support a deathtrap.

  53. Eldiran says:

    I have to say, I really disagree with the idea that recent incarnations of DnD are bad for those who want sensible dungeon layouts. While the system itself doesn’t force you or tell you how to make reasonable areas, that by no means means you can’t do it yourself. In a recent 4E adventure, I had a dungeon that kobolds were inhabiting, and they had a place to eat, sleep, get water from, poop, etc… this dungeon was also near a city they were raiding, giving them a reason to be there, and a way of replenishing supplies. Not to mention I also created a good reason as to why this tunnel complex existed in the first place (which I won’t expound upon lest my players see this comment).

    And yes, things like poisoning the water supply is a totally legitimate tactic in DnD, and can definitely be implemented. I’ve run two groups through the dungeon I described; one of them slew all the kobolds currently within and destroyed their supplies, while the other delved in to the core of the place and blew up the main supports with explosives, effectively destroying the entire complex. Neither ruined the challenge of the dungeon, and both were very effective.

  54. Bryan says:

    A dungeon I made a few weeks ago consisted of kobolds who occupied an abandoned dwarf mine. The kobolds used it as a staging area for caravan raids on the main road. I had a schedule worked out for which teams were sleeping, setting the ambushes, etc. It was quite the success.

    Another dungeon I made quite some time ago had no “guards” at the doors, but gravel was scattered everywhere. I would describe how the gravel crunched under their feet, yet they were always shocked when the monsters were not surprised by their arrival. Finally someone asked me why I always said “crunch, crunch, crunch” whenever they moved in the dungeon. The looks on their faces when I explained that it’s what the monsters hear as the PC’s walk was priceless!

  55. GregT_314 says:

    Sorry, my first comment was a little more troll-y than I intended. But I stand by it. I’ve played every edition of D&D except 3.0, and I’ve enjoyed them all, but this is not a system that in any way supports roleplaying or even high levels of cause and effect.

    Shamus – sorry, I completely agree that a small level of internal consistency adds to the fun and makes for a better dungeon. But I think D&D genuinely works best when there could be absolutely ANYTHING around the next corner, and that each encounter need only be internally consistent, not consistent with other encounters.

    Everything I have to say on this topic I’ve already said, and you can read it here: http://amongthedust.blogspot.com/2008/07/roleplaying-and-games.html

    Which I strongly encourage, if only so you can violently and intelligently disagree with me.

  56. MRL says:

    My favorite dungeon-destroying trick (though it requires quite a bit of gold, and only works with underground-ish dungeons):

    Decanter of Endless Water. Find someplace that has higher ground than (most) of the dungeon, and leave the thing turned on for a day or two, or until the dungeon is completely submerged. Then take advantage of wildshape and/or polymorphing, and loot the joint!

    Your mileage may vary where non-amphibious friendlies are involved, of course.

  57. Daemian Lucifer says:

    @Noumenon

    Magic is not the same as unrealistic.You can have a very magic heavy setting that is plausable and very realistic,that follows certain rules.Its just different from our world,that is all.And besides,going through these small tips that Shamus wrote really becomes a part of you later so you do it automatically.

    GregT_314
    “Sorry, my first comment was a little more troll-y than I intended. But I stand by it. I’ve played every edition of D&D except 3.0, and I’ve enjoyed them all, but this is not a system that in any way supports roleplaying or even high levels of cause and effect.”

    Not true.I did have one DM that encouriged roleplaying(ironicly,its because of him that I moved away from D&D),and had really complex and plausable dungeons.There were even large areas populated by numerous high level creatures simply because it was logical,so his players quickly learned that they dont need to explore everything.

    Every system can be made into both a slaughterfest or a complex story driven role play.Its just that with some systems it is easier to do one or the other.True,D&D is best suited for mindles fighting,but it doesnt have to be like that allways.

  58. Tommi says:

    Eldiran; 4th edition (and, to a lesser extent, 3rd edition) are built with the assumption of encounter being the unit of play. Dungeon is a way of connecting encounters to each other.

    Fire-and-forget (hereafter Vancian) magic is not terribly suited to this style. Living and breathing dungeons are sort of irrelevant; GM designs cool encounters and springs them on the players when appropriate.

    If one considers dungeon as a unit of play, suddenly Vancian magic and hit points as resources to manage make sense. Suddenly avoiding combat is a smart thing to do, because wandering monsters are not worth fighting. Giving experience according to loot discovered further discourages combat as useless waste of resources.

    It is a radically different style of play, and one that 4e does not support very well. Poisoning the water supply is much more meaningful given such a style of play.

    (Note that one can use games in ways they were not intended to be used. They just tend to not work quite as well or be drifted to better suit the other style.)

  59. Miako says:

    Earthdawn and Rolemaster rock. Nuff said.

    Yeah, d&d doesn’t always do everything the best.

    You don’t need to have a “set date” for the king to die — just roll an increasing percentage every day that he’s being poisoned. And if he survives for months, have the poisoner look kinda frustrated.

    I like a living breathing world to live in.

  60. Jack Colby says:

    One opinion only, and pretty closed-minded to say the other way is “bad”. It also shows a lack of experience on your part Shamus. There are entire essays online about the dungeon as a sort of “mythic Underworld” that go against what you’re advocating here. And they arguably are far more appropriate for the game than the idea of dungeons that make logical sense.

  61. Shamus says:

    Jack: Close minded?

    You can gesture vaguely at the internet and say things like, “There are experts out there who say you’re wrong”, but if you can’t even be bothered to put up a link than then you have got, basically, nothing. You’re appealing to an authority you can’t even be bothered to name, with supporting arguments you don’t care to articulate.

    Play however you like, but I’m not going to try to hold a debate with the voices in your head.

  62. Eldiran says:

    @Tommi: I certainly agree with you that systems can be not aimed towards certain styles of play. DnD leans away from simulationist play, moreso in 4th edition; which is a natural result of a lot of the changes they made (less complex rules covers less esoteric situations, Wizards’ spells don’t cover all/most situations), whether moving away from simulationist was intentional or not.

    I’m not sure I really buy the idea that merely because battling through a dungeon was harder, more tedious, or time-consuming in 3.5, so to speak, makes it more oriented towards innovative thinking. (Not to mention this only affects caster PCs). But that’s a moot point, as my real objection is just to the statement that 4e, or 3.5, is unsuited to or unable to handle unorthodox methods of operating (i.e. not run in to bash heads).

    Anyway, I get the feeling we agree about the nature of 4e, but I feel obligated to say I don’t find your example very convincing. Particularly because, in 4e, healing surges and daily powers replace spells as the resources to manage, and now everyone has those. It seems it could be just as dungeon-driven as 3.5, if not more.

  63. Eric says:

    I’ve checked out 7c, and wod. They both offer incentives just like dnd to roleplay. The drama dice is 7c is the same as being awarded exp, same as the glory and renown in wod. By your definition of what constitutes a game made for roleplaying the DBZ 10 sided game is awesome. If you actually stand up, shout out, and act out the power you were trying to use you get more dice. As someone said above “the rules do not determine the roleplaying in games.

    In the 4ed. campaign I’m running the group went into a bunch of ruins, they didn’t stop to ask what these ruins were there for, they were to busy tracking the goblins who raided the nearby town, and abducted people. After they reached the ruins, and ended up getting into a fight for setting of a trap on purpose so no one would fall victim to it, the paladin in the group found the only magical item in the whole dungeon. He took it and smashed it right then and there, because it came from the goblins, and he thought it was evil. Now that’s Roleplaying, how are the rules suppose to be any kind of influence over how roleplaying is integrated into the game. I imagine every Dm is roleplaying the store keeps, peasants, nobles,etc,etc.

    I will admit though the roleplaying in D&D depends soley on whether or not the Pc’s are going to make backstories for their characters. This is what roleplaying in dnd really hinges on for two reasons: 1. This gives the Dm the ability to incorporate the players into the campaign by using their backstories as sources for your campaign. 2. This also really helps the pc’s realize their characters personality, and what that character’s goals are.

    There you have it, the rules have no bearing on the roleplaying aspect of the game, it just depends on the DM, and the players at the table. Incentives should never be the judge of what makes a roleplaying game.

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