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.
- The bandits who live here use the place because it’s a short distance from a road where they can waylay travelers.
- 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.
- 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.