Some dungeons are awesome. Some are utter crap. For a new GM, designing a dungeon is a daunting prospect.
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!
- Remember, it’s meant to be Fun: Above all, dungeon delving should be fun. If your dungeon isn’t fun to play, redesign it.
- 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.
- 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.
- Build the Dungeon to Make Sense: The dungeon needs to make sense. When you design it, keep in mind the following points.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!