Pictured: the Tomb of Horrors dungeon map walk through poster by Jason Thompson
One of the most iconic parts of Fantasy RPGs is the Dungeon Delve, where players dig through secret crypts and caverns and dust off old forbidden books and long forgotten treasures. The feeling is one of darkness, mystery, and the sense that anything could happen.
But it seems some of my readers feel a little intimidated by the thought of creating one of these masterworks of stone and sorrow. So I’m here to lend a hand.
The first thing any Game Master should do is dig around some old books or watch some old movies for ideas. I say old because the best inspiration comes from something that you’re unfamiliar with. The massive amount of past black and white adventure movies and pulp fiction is a perfect treasure trove of excellent ideas. I myself recently decided to go back and watch pretty much every Power Rangers episode, and that has inspired some gnarly monsters and artifacts when separated from the show’s goofiness.
Another easy inspiration source is RPG material, old or new. Nobody really minds if you take some ideas and re-flavor them. You can keep the skeleton or structure of a scene, fight, or location and then add a new style to it or change around some of the non-mechanical material. A fight with Goblins can easily become a fight with Kobolds, for instance. Trap ideas, spell ideas, villains, or even single encounters can be pulled from any amount of older material.
It’s so overwhelming to start something like this. What do you do for your first dungeon? What’s your first idea? Well, there are quite a few ways to start off, and it’s not as hard as it seems.
The Building Blocks
The three basic things every dungeon needs are…
- An entrance or entrances:
Multiple entrances can be a great twist while exploring.
- Danger around every corner:
The players should be second guessing and deliberating. There should be fear.
- A clear goal:
Nothing is more boring than pointless meandering. Something as simple as “treasure” should be enough to keep the group moving forward.
Pick a monster (or monsters) to theme the dungeon.
I like to find a monster that I enjoy, say the Gelatinous Cube or Owlbear, and think of a dungeon that would work for that creature. Gelatinous Cubes need a lot of long hallways and square rooms, while an Owlbear might choose a knot of caverns and tunnels to call home. These types of dungeons are generally referred to as a lair, but don’t always have to be. Intelligent creatures would use a lair as a home and fill it with traps or other creatures who serve as guards. Non-intelligent creatures would use more natural surroundings and settings and just make do with what’s around.
Pick a unique place to base your dungeon.
A ruined temple, a long flooded city, or even a cliff-top observatory: any of these places could be perfect dungeons. A dungeon really is usually a ruined place, somewhere to be explored and conquered. But a lot of dungeons are wizard’s towers and Kobold caves, where they are the home of certain creatures. Keep in mind the purpose of the dungeon, and the place it lies will help you pick the right things to fill it. Vampire lords would have a castle. Dragons might have a castle as well, but one that was stolen or conquered. Think it through logically, and you’ll find the right fit easily.
Decide on a Trap/Puzzle/Monster ratio.
Not all dungeons have to just be tons of monsters. Really cool dungeons include clever puzzles and tricky traps to mix it up. If the dungeon is used to protect a mad engineer, maybe the whole place is just traps and puzzles, and there isn’t a monster in sight! Another interesting idea would be a dungeon that has no monsters and no traps, but a ton of gold and treasure! The key though would be that most of it is cursed, and finding the non-cursed treasure could kill anyone who took the time to look.
Tips To Build a Dungeon
Whilst I’m no expert (Disclaimer: I’ve never built a dungeon in real life. Sad but true.) I think that dungeons should be realistic to a point. You should not design six or seven rooms with monsters in them, toss in some treasure, and call it a day. Make sure the dungeon actually makes sense in its layout. If the monsters live there, they need a place to eat, to sleep, to shit, to train, and to hide their stuff. These are all rooms that could exist, and by using a little creativity they could also be excellent dungeon rooms.
So, once you’ve started, make sure you go through and fill everything with purpose. Each piece of treasure should have a reason for being there. Each trap should be protecting something, not just in the middle of some hallway where Larry could trip and get his head chopped off. Also, puzzles can be creative and not relegated to a single room. Maybe have the players backtrack to grab a key or interrogate a someone to find a way past the door. Anything that makes it more interesting.
A rule that I play fast and loose with is that there should never be a linear nature to a dungeon unless that’s the key nature of the dungeon. If the dungeon is linear because its a path to a portal, that’s passable. But the boss dungeon should absolutely not be a long hallway that leads to the Dragon’s lair. Think about houses, and how they are made of interconnecting rooms that are laid out by convenience, not by a long line. Focus on this sort of layout, and work around that.
When it comes to dungeons, you shouldn’t worry about how massive or how small it is, you should worry about all the cool creatures and crazy encounters you have cooked up. Just take it one step at a time, make sure it has a logical through-line, and don’t worry too much.
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