Designing A Dungeon
One of the quintessential tools in the GM’s kit is the classic dungeon. Now, not every GM uses dungeons—I know many great ones who barely use any dungeons in their games at all. They tend to stick to story-heavy narratives rather than running “the crawl.”
A Good Dungeon Does Not Require Maximum Effort
It doesn’t have to be meticulously crafted. In fact, making a sufficient dungeon can be pretty easy. On days where I don’t want to do a lot of work preparing for a session, I’ll make a dungeon instead.
Of course, there are some people who put a lot of time and effort into crafting brilliant dungeons that take a lot of time and work to construct. Occasionally, I’ll take the time to craft an intricate dungeon for the players, but a dungeon can be fun and rewarding for both the players and the GM without much effort.
I tend to throw three things into every dungeon: secrets, puzzles, and traps. Each of these adds a bit of excitement and makes the players more engaged and committed to the dungeon. If there is just room after room of enemies, then the dungeon doesn’t really have anything to say. It’s just a long walk full of fights. To some groups or players that’d be acceptable, but most players need a bit more.
There are interesting ways to design combat-heavy dungeons or even dungeons that don’t have any combat in them whatsoever. In the future we’ll talk more about these different dungeons, but for now let’s stick with something straightforward and easy to build.
Mapping the Dungeon and Filling the Rooms
The first step of any dungeon is to draw the map. This is probably my favorite part of the design process—drawing out the rooms, deciding which way the corridors lead, and connecting them all together with secret tunnels. Every good dungeon has plenty of secrets to find, and players love to find secrets. It tempts them into taking the time to explore the dungeon.
If I have secret rooms scattered around, I’ll always give the player the first one—usually with something inconsequential inside. I usually fill it with treasure I was going to give them to begin with. This gives them the idea that there are more secrets to be found, while making the
treasure seem special and more deserved. The rest of the secret rooms or passages can be found when the players roll high enough—or, if you feel they haven’t been rolling particularly well, you can let them find one as a reward.
Be cautious though. Don’t put anything that’s required for completing the dungeon hidden in a secret room if you don’t plan on letting them have it. I made this mistake early in my GM days to the detriment of my players. I hid an important piece to a puzzle in a hidden room that required a pretty high check to find. Needless to say, the session ended up being a disaster as the players tried everything they could to find it, and I (being as dumb as I was) wouldn’t take the hint and just give it to them until too late…
Puzzles and Alternate Solutions
…Which brings me to the puzzles. Puzzles are a great way to add some additional content to your dungeon. Things can get stale if you have all combat without anything the players are working toward. The puzzle doesn’t necessarily have to be hard or all that intricate. Really, you just want it to create atmosphere. Completing a puzzle to finish the dungeon gives your players more of a feeling of accomplishment. The players who like discovering clues and using their skills to solve puzzles will feel just as useful as the players who are just good at killing.
You can even combine the two and create a puzzle boss for your dungeon, giving the two play styles the chance to work together to complete the dungeon. A tip when giving your players a puzzle—players usually come up with the most interesting solutions to puzzles themselves. Give them the solution if they come up with anything particularly funny, or clever. The best moments in any game for a player are those they create themselves. If the players latch onto anything that they’ve said and are developing it into a story element or solution to a puzzle, let them have it. It’ll be a much more memorable experience than if you force them to solve the puzzle your way.
The Danger Element
Lastly, you’ll need a bit of unexpected danger in your dungeon. This is where the traps come in. Traps can add some well placed tension to your dungeon or a bit of hilarity if one of your stooges, I mean players, happens to walk into the traps again and again. Make the traps as dangerous as you want depending on the levity of the situation, but it’s usually not a good idea to instantly kill your players with them.
If you do want to have particularly deadly traps, there are several ways to do so. Don’t make the trap mandatory to go through, and give the players tons of warning before proceeding. Give the players the option to face death. Don’t just drop it on them from out of nowhere. You could also make it something like a poison or a disease, something that can be cured if the players want, but at a high price. Usually I like to make my traps more like practical jokes than anything. Drop a bucket of snakes on your player’s head and make them deal with that.
There is plenty a GM can do with dungeons. They are a great way to mix up your game, or just add some solid content when you aren’t feeling up for coming up with more important story. Dungeons may not be the most compelling content you’ll create for your game, but they can add
enough interest to keep your players motivated. They can also create some unexpected laughs, which I feel is always an important part of any session.