GM Advice: 10 Dungeon Design Tips for Beginners

Some dungeons are awesome. Some are utter crap. For a new GM, designing a dungeon is a daunting prospect.

Dungeon of Certain Doom by William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

I recently listed 10 Dungeon Delving Tips for Beginners. It seemed appropriate, therefore, to post 10 dungeon design tips for beginning GMs! If you follow the tips below, you’ll be well on the way top making a fun, engaging dungeon for your friends!

  1. Remember, it’s meant to be Fun: Above all, dungeon delving should be fun. If your dungeon isn’t fun to play, redesign it.
  2. Reward Attentive Play: Rewarding players for picking up on clues you scatter through the dungeon elevates the standard of game play. If the PCs can gain tactical advantages from their observations, it incentivises them to understand the dungeon. Of course, this can be taken to ludicrous levels when the PCs spend hours searching each room – avoid this wherever possible.
  3. Feature a Mix of Challenges: A dungeon comprising nothing but traps is colossally boring for fighters and other warrior types, while one stuffed full of undead is great if you are a paladin or cleric but less great if you are a bard. Creating a diverse and exciting mix of encounters that make sense means everyone has a chance to shine.
  4. Build the Dungeon to Make Sense: The dungeon needs to make sense. When you design it, keep in mind the following points.
  5. Design the Dungeon’s Ecology: Every dungeon has an ecology of sorts. While you don’t need to spend vast amounts of time on this, having an idea who the residents interact with each other and how they (generally) source food and drink is design time well spent. Consider how the various dungeon denizens interact with each other; are they friendly, at war or unaware of each other’s presence? If the dungeon inhabitants are not friendly with one another the complex will likely require many abandoned or empty areas to both serve as hunting grounds and a buffer between the various groups.
  6. Decide the Dungeon’s Purpose: Why was the dungeon built and who built it? Such decisions are crucial in building the overall look and feel of the place. This decision affects the size and scope of the dungeon as well as it’s layout and physicality. A dungeon built by dwarves, for example, will feel completely different to one built by troglodytes or serpentfolk.
  7. Include Wandering Monsters: Wandering monsters are an often overlooked – but crucial – part of dungeon design. Wandering monsters add a sense of uncertainty to explorations and help build a dungeon’s verisimilitude.
  8. Name the Dungeon: Only complete unknown dungeons will have no name. A dungeon’s name builds atmosphere and (often) shows how others view the place. It can also provide important clues about a complex. For example, the Sepulchre of Gibbering Shadows is probably infested with undead; some might have madness or sonic-based attacks. Wise adventurers will prepare for such challenges before entering.
  9. Include Dungeon Dressing: No dungeon exists in a vacuum. Previous explorers, residents and so on all leave their mark on the dungeon. Including minor features of interest adds to the realism of the place and incentivises the PCs to learn more about the place through their skills and observations. If you need help with dungeon dressing, consider checking out GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing by Raging Swan Press.
  10. Create Appropriate Challenges and Rewards: If a dungeon is too hard or too easy, it’s not going to be fun. Of course, the PCs may encounter challenges they cannot defeat, but that should be the exception not the norm. Appropriate challenges and rewards are the cornerstone of successful, long-lived games.

Help Fellow GMs

Did I miss something? Of course, I did – reducing dungeon design to such a short article is impossible! Let me know what you think should be on the list in the comments below and help your fellow GMs build better dungeons today!

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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9 thoughts on “GM Advice: 10 Dungeon Design Tips for Beginners

  1. Not EVERYONE enjoys this sort of thing, but along with the name… give the Dungeon (or castle, or fort, or tower, etc) a “gimmick”. Maybe the dungeon floods, or maybe parts of the dungeon teleport to other locations in the dungeons, or maybe the whole damn thing is a moving maze on gears… Chances are unless your players are uber jaded and grizzled vets, it’ll up the “WHOA Factor” of your Dungeon adventure.

  2. One of the things I plan on doing down the road is to make a maze that under normal light will look like an empty field. The characters will be able to see their goal on the other side. The moment they step onto the field I turn a black light on and reveal the maze that they are now in. I’ve been thinking of other unique locatikns for them as well.

  3. This is some really good solid advice for beginner DM’s. I feel the number one thing for me in creating a fantasy world or even a one off game, is to always start the game with a well prepared introduction to set the mood. Don’t keep this short and sweet, because it’s the only part of the game the DM has full control of, make the intro no less than a half of a page long, read in a way to convey to the players you are in control and the game is on! One other thing is to keep a certain amount of realism so that the players can quickly relate to their surroundings, get into character, and feel immersed intothe story smoother for longer periods of time without much disbelief or questioning every little thing. I remember the first time I attempted to draw a dungeon during lunch, I was in middle school. Using the classic Red D&D 1983 Paper Backs, that I snuck in my books. I had already read the two book’s cover to cover several times, and we played a few sessions starting at the famous Golden Dragon Inn. I was our groups only DM. Used the key on the inside cover of the DM Rule Book as a guide and the rest is history. Thank you TSR.
    Now I sit here 2016 Converting 2e Ravenloft Night of The Walking Dead to 5e. We are in the Tarascon Mansion, I’m expanding on the story adding more monsters pumping up the treasures and villains the Adventures are at 3rd level.
    Thank you Creighton and Raging Swan Press for writing these Quality inspirational blogs on a regular basis.
    A Happy Patreon. 🙂

  4. Here’s one: puzzles can be fun, especially when they force the players to collaborate with their PCs’ various strengths (skills, gear, class abilities, critter-buddies, spells, possibly feats, and so on) … but, work out a few viable solutions ahead of time and, with any challenge this granular, know the characters well.

    A friend of mine who got me into tabletop role-playing (we were both new to it) designed a yank-the-PCs-around dream-sequence in which each of 5 PCs (I played 2) got trapped in a single cell apart from the others, but was unable to interact with the item that would release themself, only the item *in another cell* with another party member, to which they had no access! It seems like a clever gimmick, except that the GM honestly hadn’t considered a solution to the puzzle himself, so we cast around for an excruciatingly long time before I had my “river-gnome” barbarian play his otter-shaped carnyx/didgeridoo until he fell into a trance and was able to project his soul (my suggestion based on reading works like “I benandanti” for my MA thesis), and I had my somewhat Holmsian half-elf ranger-wizard light up his opium pipe. The GM allowed my gnome, Otrix Riparianus (&c, &c), first of his name, esquire, to pull everyone else into his ecstatic experience (within another dream, mind you) and only them were we able to begin to solve the problem.

    However, the GM hadn’t really bothered to pay attention to the details of our PCs, neither stats nor concept (I wrote extensive notes, but he ignored them), so while his solution was based on utilizing broad stereotypes for the character classes, none of *us* thought in terms of *his* stock characterizations of our individual PCs. We had all thought “outside of the box” in conceiving of our characters (well, except for the longbow-wielding elven ranger) and the GM completely ignored that.

    Spitballing is fine, but know your party, and think of hypothetical outcomes. There is no way in the LE plane that the GM could have anticipated our solution, yet he hadn’t considered any other solutions (by his own admission).

    We had a coup shortly thereafter.

  5. If possible, try to remember what dungeons you enjoyed and what ones didn’t go well. See if you can incorporate the good parts and avoiding the bad parts based from those experiences during your design phase. Also, get similar input from the players, so they have something to look forward to!!

  6. Relating to Reward Attentive Play and Build the Dungeon to Make Sense, remember that very few structures make sense if built as a tube. That is, unless you’re building something intended to be ‘defense in depth'[1] there should probably be branches and loops in the map.

    [1] which is very easy to do as a GM, since it means the PCs don’t — can’t! — encounter the BBEG until the end of the adventure.