Surely designing a dungeon badly is a doddle – just sketch some rooms out and randomly stock them with monsters and treasure? That’s true up to a point, but taking extra time to consider the dungeon’s ecology is design time well spent.
I’ve previously talked about the big picture when it comes to dungeon design. Just as important, though, as questions about who built the dungeon and why are more mundane details. The devil is in the detail, after all. Ignoring the basic characteristics of a dungeon and its inhabitants can shatter the players’ suspension of disbelief.
The Ultimate in Bad Design
- It’s Magic! This is the ultimate rationale for lazy design. “It’s magic” can sweep away almost any logical inconsistency. All it says to me as a publisher (and gamer), though, is that either the designer doesn’t care about creating a plausible dungeon or he doesn’t know he’s failed horribly. (Of course, some extra-planar dungeons or the lair of a powerful wizard could prove the exception to this rule, but such examples are few and far between).
- Food & Water: Of course, some dungeon denizens – elementals and undead to name but two – normally don’t need to eat or drink. Most others, however, require sustenance to survive. If the means to acquire food and drink do not exist in the dungeon they must be acquired elsewhere (preferably from somewhere close by).
- Access: Pretty much every denizen of the dungeon needs to move about. Creatures need to gather food and water, at the most basic level. They may also trade or work with their neighbours, creep forth to raid the surface lands and so on. To do this they need to have access to a means of entering and exiting the dungeon. The classic example of this done badly is the monster living in a room that is only accessed through the lair of another. Sure, the two might be allied, but would you really live in a place in which you were totally beholden to your neighbour for everything?
- Conflict & Alliances: It is very unlikely the denizens of a dungeon exist in a bubble of isolation, not interacting with each other. As in any community, alliances, rivalries and conflicts will be present among the dungeon denizens. Clever explorers can learn of these and exploit them to their advantage.
- Why Are They There? Consider why the denizens are actually living in the dungeon. Have the chosen to be there? Are they trapped? Are they here because they are searching for something? Shocking, most monsters don’t just hang around in a room waiting to be slaughtered by rampaging adventurers.
- Light: While most won’t, some dungeon denizens need light. If they need it, they must have a means of providing light practically continually.
Empty rooms are a vital part of dungeon design that have fallen out of fashion in recent years through the tyranny of falling page counts and increased space given to the crunchy bits of modules.
Unoccupied rooms can contain furniture, hidden secrets, interesting dungeon features and even treasure! Skilled players can learn a lot about a dungeon by poking around empty rooms.
Dungeons need empty rooms because:
- Provide a Change of Pace: They provide a break from the constant grind of combat that often occurs in dungeon delving and allow players to catch their breath.
- Enable Skill Checks: Such locations practically beg to be investigated. Perception checks, Knowledge checks and so on can all be used to learn more about the location. Canny players can use this information to their advantage. If, for example, the party explore an unoccupied barracks and note there are 20 bunk beds in the room, they get a good idea of the size of the garrison. That could be very useful information to have.
- A Place To Rest: If the party are in need of rest, an empty room is the perfect place to hunker down for the night. An easily defensible, empty room or one that is remote from the main complex is even better!
- Verisimilitude: Not every room in a dungeon should be stuffed full of villains waiting to be slain. Some rooms are used for storage, meeting, sleeping or ceremonial purposes. They won’t be all occupied all the time. If every room is occupied by foes it is very hard for the PCs to move through the dungeon without every denizen charging to the aid of their companions. Such a situation usually ends up in a very large, bloody and long-winded fight the PCs have no real chance of winning (and is probably crushingly boring).
- Dressing: Empty rooms can be interesting places to poke about. They can contain interesting odds and ends that although not intrinsically valuable build on the flavour and style of the dungeon.
Help Fellow Gamers
Do you have any other dungeon design tips related to this topic? If you do, please leave them in the comments below and help your fellow GMs design better dungeons today!
This article is part of Dungeon Design Fortnight. Dungeon Design Fortnight celebrates Raging Swan Press’s upcoming release of GM’s Miscellany Dungeon Dressing – a huge 336-page tome dedicated to all aspects of dungeon design and dressing. This article, along with loads of other useful information, appears in the book. I’m insanely proud of GM’s Miscellany Dungeon Dressing and I hope if you are thinking about designing dungeons you check it out.
Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.