Friday, March 29, 2013

How Do I Design a Dungeon?


I hadn't planned on posting this article for quite a while, but it turns out that two days ago Alex Shroeder just started this year's One Page Dungeon Contest.  If you want to take a look at some past winners, click here.  I've been secretly working on my own dungeon game for the last nine months, and have accumulated a lot of good advice.  Not all of it is applicable to the one page dungeon contest, but I feel it has helped me in my quest to make a better game.  I will share that advice with you here: 

  • Dungeons ought to have an area where lack of light is an issue.  For example, dripping ceilings that get torches wet or wind that blows them out or even low oxygen areas or flooded tunnels.
  • At least 1 item/effect per 2-3 levels should have some kind of lasting and tangible effect on at least one PC.
  • Add ledges, overlooks, and peaks to create three dimensions in your design.  This will also give your players a chance to exercise their cleverness to get around.
  • Don’t aim for the stars on your first dungeon design.  You will build up ideas and the ability to create more elaborate maps as you go thru the process several times.
  • Don’t get too caught up in making your dungeon subtly random, irregular, or odd.  Be obvious with what’s unusual.
  • Food and drink should be fairly abundant for the most part, but it doesn’t have to be delicious.  Mmmm…Rats!
  • Make your dungeon used.  Have sections where there is some obvious repair/expansion work being done or evidence of a collapse.  This will break up the monotony and provide cover during fights.
  • If this is your 1st time, or even your 20th, there’s nothing wrong w/looking at old dungeons you love & copying features.
  • Implied threats are as effective at real threats at times.  Create false leads and ominous doorways that make PCs think twice.
  • Items found in dungeons are not meant to be permanent.  Find ways to keep a circulation of items going- whether that’s sacrificing them to earn favor with a subterranean race or to an idol to get a better/different item in return.
  • Mini-goals and side quests are necessary for design.  Keep the people outside the dungeon important to what’s happening inside the dungeon.
  • Monsters can and should retreat- not everything should be a pitched battle to the death.
  • Most of the sentient races are far more interested in having a slave than killing adventurers.
  • Not everything should cost blood or gold.  Things can cost honor, time, obligations, and other resources.
  • Propose lots of different problems- including coins and items that can’t be easily divided among the group.  Making these decisions is part of the dungeon-delving experience.
  • Realism: for some groups this really matters, for others it’s superfluous.  Know your audience.
  • Resist the temptation to maximize the use of your graph paper. There should be plenty of it that can’t be explored (i.e. solid rock).
  • Re-use old space.  Make items, objects, and locations that are in the upper levels relevant to what’s in the lower levels.
  • Show the players they aren’t the first ones there- have bodies/treasure of other dead heroes placed in your dungeon in various places.
  • The entrance does not always have to be at the edge of the paper.  Start in the middle sometimes.
  • There should be no need to hyper-charge the monsters in your dungeon.  The additional difficulty of your encounters should come from the hazards & relationships innately present in the dungeon.
  • Think about what other monsters might join a fight or run to sound an alarm.
  • Think logically.  Many dungeons will have a common, public area with “work” areas or “living” areas as off-shoots.
  • Thresholds are important in mythology and in RPGs.  There should be hard challenges that unlock the next area/level.
  • Understand that details will change over time.  Don’t be afraid to retcon something to improve the campaign if everyone can agree to it.
  • Understand that some of your mysteries and plots won’t be followed by the players. That’s okay, proceed with consequences.
  • Variety is critical: don’t put 1 monster per PC in every room.   Make most encounters lopsided for one side or the other.  This will stretch your players- and reward them!
  • Wreck your own dungeon: have explosions, traps, cave-ins, wars, experiments, etc. permanently alter the geography of the dungeon during play at least once.
  • Your dungeon will feel more immersive it if looks like it was designed by nature or for a specific purpose by an intelligent being and not designed just for a game.
There ya go!  If you’re a dungeon style gamer, hopefully these will help.  Comments and questions, as always, are welcome.




Alex Schroeder said...

My own list: Quality Dungeons.

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya Alex,

Thanks for posting that! I've been on spring break and couldn't reply sooner. I've read that list before and thought it was great- some of the best advice I've read for making dungeons.

I hope the contest goes well this year. Last year's winner was quite impressive IMO. Good luck to everyone who enters! :)