Player Advice: 10 Dungeon Delving Tips for Beginners

Do you remember your first delve? The excitement! The wonder! The chaos! The catastrophically bad choices…

Sneaking Up on Goblins by William McAusland (Outland Arts)


As a gamer of over 30-years experience, I take certain tenets of dungeon delving for granted. To me, they are obvious. However, after watching my 10-year-old son run his first game, I realised they are anything but obvious to beginners. The game was great fun – but total chaos. The boys had a blast killing goblins, but could have been more successful if they’d followed the basic rules of dungeon delving:

  1. Never split the party: This is really basic. If the party splits up – even if only temporarily – it makes its component parts much weaker. Of course, the rogue still needs to scout but generally speaking the party should stay together whenever possible. Remember, dungeons are full of peril and you are stronger if you face it together.
  2. Delving deeper increases the danger (and reward): The deeper you go, the greater the dangers and rewards. This is an absolutely basic tenet of dungeon design, but one that is not immediately obvious to a beginner. Making it harder, the dungeon’s design might actually mean that going higher (or further away from the entrance) increases the danger.
  3. Always have a plan: Just wandering into a dungeon to see what is there, isn’t the world’s best plan. Being prepared is a principle of successful adventuring. Plans can be simple, for example, “find a stair leading to the second level” or more complicated: “hunt down and kill the orc chieftain lairing on the third level.” Whatever your plan is, know it and stick to it.
  4. Always have a balanced party: A party should have a balance of skills and abilities. A party of rogues sounds great in principle but without a healer, a wizard-type and a decent fighter some encounters are going to be too difficult to overcome. Having a balanced party gives you the best chance of overcoming most encounters without anyone dying.
  5. Leave before you can’t leave: There is always a temptation to do “just one more room.” (Ask the players in my Borderland of Adventure campaign.) If resources are running low and the party has enough left for one good fight you should leave. Dungeons have wandering monsters, after all, and you should expect to at least occasionally encounter them. Running into a random encounter when you are down to your last few spells and several of your companions are unconscious or near death could be fatal. If someone dies – or is unable to continue due to petrification, unconsciousness, fear, a curse or whatever – leave as soon as you can. Continuing is akin to splitting the party.
  6. Stock up on mundane equipment: Unless your character is 1st-level or tremendously poor, there is no excuse to not have a decent supply of mundane equipment. Rope, pitons, mirrors – even 10 ft. poles – can be the difference between life and death. Use it liberally and replace what you use. I’ve seen entire adventures derailed because no one had any rope. When you get to higher level and you can afford bags of holding and the like there is no excuse to have the right tool for the job.
  7. Don’t fight everything: Not everything in a dungeon needs to be killed. Some monsters may be too tough for the party, while others might be indifferent – or even friendly – toward explorers. Even if the monster you meet are hostile, a fight doesn’t have to ensue. Diplomacy, stealth or good old running away are all viable strategies.
  8. Keep a good map: A decent map is invaluable. Knowing where you are and where you have been is a cornerstone of good delving. An accurate map can also give hints as to the location of secret chambers, lost passageways and more. If you get lost in a large dungeon, you might never get out.
  9. Winning every fight is impossible: Knowing when to retreat (or run away) is a vital skill for a new player. Not every fight is winnable. Understanding that will increase your life expectancy immensely.
  10. Learn as much as you can: Before you go into the dungeon, learn as much about it as possible. Local residents, rumours, aged sages and even the diaries of previous explorers could all contain clues and information vital to the success of your expedition. When you are in the dungeon, pay attention. Graffiti on the walls, discarded equipment and even the layout of the area can all give vital clues as to what lies within. Successful adventurers use their senses, intelligence and common sense.

And, here’s a handy infographic presenting a summary of the information above!

10 Dungeon Delving Tips for Beginners

Help Fellow Gamers

Do you have any other hints and tips for adventures embarking on their first delve? If you do, leave them in the comments below and increase the life expectancy of neophyte adventurers everywhere!

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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.

27 thoughts on “Player Advice: 10 Dungeon Delving Tips for Beginners”

  1. Great advice! Nothing to add at the moment, except maybe ‘keep the noise to a minimum’. I’ve had a few parties suffer terribly when they made too much noise and alerted everything that wanted them dead to their presence….

    (Also, do you know the name of the artist who did the pic you chose for this article?)

  2. Nice article.

    I disagree with #4 though. I think an “unbalanced” party, (like 4 thieves, 4 wizards, etc) can be a fun and unique way to play the game. All thieves for example would be like playing Metal Gear.

    Additionally, this push for “party balance” can put pressure on players, especially new ones, to play something they don’t really want to.

    And I don’t even see why the push exists since I’m not convinced a “balanced” party is stronger overall than 4 thieves, 4 wizards, 4 clerics, etc. Four bards would be pretty daft but other than that I say mix it up, have some fun and play what you want!

    1. I agree with you up until the bards comment. It obviously depends on what game and what edition, but in both Pathfinder and D&D 5th bards are pretty awesome. It wouldn’t be a party anymore, though. It would be a band! Hah!

      1. I can see it. No one is going to be a “tank” or “battle-turtle” (as humorously portrayed in “The Gamers II: Dorkness Rising”), but …

        With class-granted proficiency in shields and weapons such as spear and longsword, or racial-granted proficiencies (e.g. dwarf with a battleax or warhammer, a tengu with various superior swords, a half-orc with a falchion) alone, one or more party members can be the “fighter”. Throw in an additional weapon proficiency feat and/or a tower shield proficiency feat and you’re even closer to having a front-line bard. The Toughness feat is another obvious choice. Multi-classing as a fighter or another martial class like ranger or barbarian is pretty easy, too. Pathfinder also has the skald class, but then the question becomes “how much does the party as a whole want to rage?”

        Obviously bards aren’t known for their blasting spells, but not all wizards focus on evocation, either. *Summon monster* is a bard spell, too. One bard can just lean into the class’ strength in enchantment and/or illusion magic. Blasting magic is also just a few items and ranks in Use Magic Device away. Take a level of wizard or sorcerer, and you don’t even need UMD, but that’s a little too munchkin-y for my taste.

        The *cure x wounds* spells are bard spells. In addition to casting the spell as a spell known, a bard can thus use wands and scrolls of this spell. Because of this, one hardly even *needs* a bard-party-member specifically devoted to healing and undead-harming. Yeah, it’s hard to beat channeling positive energy, but there can be work-arounds. This would be more like a druid-as-healer party.

        Finally, bards are skill-monkeys and have Stealth and Perception as class skills, so they can easily be pseudo-rogues. There are plenty of archetypes and race options to enhance this style. Sure, they’re not going to have the Sneak Attack strike-power, but, as with clerics and channeling, one does have to question how absolutely essential that is. Again, Use Magic Device and items can cover a multitude of discrepancies.

        This is immensely do-able!

    2. Part of this depends on level. 4 wizards are level 5+ are viable. 4 wizards at 2nd level? Not likely to survive in most editions of D&D/PFRPG. Although my brief exposure to 5th makes me think it might be the most survivable edition yet for low level wizards!

    3. All rogues or all wizards offer an interesting idea for a campaign. All fighters sounds a bit like how a lot of the 2nd edition campaigns went when I was 13; nobody wanted to run around with four hit points and *a* spell at 1st level. But given how different fighter builds can be nowadays, even at 1st level, I’d certainly give it a shot.

  3. This article is handy for newbies. However, I want to put down how my groups react to some of these. Yes, plural for groups. Welcome to my life. I can think of only one player that I game with that doesn’t follow any of these. We’re both new to the one group that does this the most.

    1) No kidding don’t split the party. You even think of going off on your own, and the GM will smite you hard just because he can. Everyone holds hands, and everyone goes to the bathroom together. If you can help it, share a room. We have bedrolls. We draw straws and take turns on the bed if we’re there for multiple nights.

    2) Only if your GM’s not Mr. Crabs or Scrooge. You are only allowed exactly what the wealth table says, an absolutely nothing more. This includes favours (they have gold values too). If the module says you get 30k in gold, but you’re already maxed for your wealth, that’ll turn into only 10k. That being said, if you do somehow manage to get it, enjoy it because it’ll be going away soon. Like a delver that eats coins. And now, you have less than the wealth table with no way to make it up. Too bad, so sad.

    3) Plans are stupid. You hear the quest, and you go do it. Making plans wastes valuable killing time. I came to game and kill, earn xp, get money, and become level 20. If all you’re going to do is make plans, I’m going home.

    4) Balanced? Heck with that noise! I play what I want to. You can’t tell me otherwise. You want balanced so badly, you make the sacrifice and play it. I’m playing X. (Note: I have yet to play a character of my own choice for two campaigns because I end up being the one to make the sacrifice for balance purposes and survivability. and I’m sick of it.)

    5) No, keep going. Unless the healer’s dead, the potions are gone, and we’re forced to make endurance checks, we keep going. You owe me gold and level 20. We only go back if we absolutely have to for plot devices, and even then those can wait unless it’s an emergency.

    6) You’re the GM, you make sure we have the equipment. That’s too tedious for us to worry about. I’m not willing to put in the effort. Just say we have it, and keep the game moving along.

    7) FIGHT EVERYTHING. Killing everything that opposes us means XP, meaning I get to level 20 faster. And heck, maybe they have good stuff too. What’s that you say? That makes me evil? Does that affect the class I’m playing? No? Then I’m evil. What? Everyone’s going to attack us because we’re evil and kill everyone for the sake of XP? Good. More XP then. They better have good equipment and magic items. The wealth tables says you have to give me X by level 20. Anyone that we don’t kill, we’ll oppress and make them work for us. But they’re supposed to give us information? Hmm. I’ve got speak with dead so I don’t really care. Uh, FINE. But I’m still going to intimidate them, even if they’re willingly handing over the information. They must learn.

    8) Again, you’re the GM. You draw the map and just assume one of us is doing it.

    9) I call your bluff. Winning every fight isn’t impossible. I don’t care if it’s 10 CR higher than we are. I haven’t leveled up in three games and I want more stuff. We keep going until we’re dead. If the character dies, oh well. I’ve got a stack of character sheets and builds about yay high to play through. Fighting something of this magnitude just means I level up faster and get better stuff. I BETTER get good stuff from this fight. Not like that last fight where the guy had just buffed himself and we got nothing. No ripping me off this time.

    10) Learning is time consuming, and means we’ll be doing the plot in order of events as the modules says we should. That’s not how this group works. We’ll go in and find things out as we go. I want a fight tonight. Let’s go, I’m only 1000 xp away from leveling up. Besides, I’m chaotic. Learning is lawful. Boring. Come on, you’re wasting valuable killing time. Uh, you’re actually going to gather information? Fine, we’re going for a smoke, or to play on my phone/tablet, or go visit and talk about stuff completely unrelated to the game. Let us know when you’re done learning “story”. We’ll come back and join the game again when we’re actually going to be doing stuff. If this takes a lot of game time, but not real time, our characters are building magic items with the npc wizard or cleric with the crafting feats.

    1. WTF?

      You are fourth Ed aren’t you? That’s the only thing that explains the stupid.

    2. And that’s the reasons you will NEVER level up. You want a pre-digested adventure? Go play in your favorite X-box/Nintendo/Playstation. You belly up to THIS table you earn you XP’s, no hand-outs. Gm make the map and assume, that’s a good one, sure I’ll do it and get you to get lost and die inside the place because of your slacker attitude. GM’s are there to make the campaing run the way they should(most of the times, there ARE exceptions) that said, don’t go there. That said, get off your tush and earn your way to GREAT gaming, not to the simple video game complacency. CLASS DISMISSED!!! CARRY ON!!!

    3. WTF. Looks like someone doesn’t know what RPG stands for. I would rather never play table top RPGs again if my only choice of companion players were like you. That kills the fun and purpose of gaming all together.

    4. Wow. I myself, am a newbie. I’m currently four sessions in, just dinged level two on my first ever D&D adventure and I have to say, I would never take advice from you. You sound the soul purpose a group dies.

  4. This is a great list of advice for new players. Though if a new player shows up at my table with this list the experienced players would totally mess with them!

  5. Help – I’ve spent a few days showering the interweb, and old rulebooks (d&d PHB 1978 pages 107-109). Looking for guidance on what, a level 1: zero experience PC should or would know about the world in general, but monsters more specifically. Even more specific: a swarm of Giant Rats.

    A la Skyrim, a PC’s first job is to clear a cellar that has a giant rat problem. According to the MM a swarm of Giant Rats does 4hp damage per round (5% chance of PC contracting disease per round), PC attacks with a swing of a sword to no effect, thinks the attack was a miss, so swings sword again the next round, PC is dead before any chance at escape or chance to come up with a different plan.

    My question is, would this PC know enough about a swarm of giant rats, to know walking in a swinging a sword wasn’t going to work?

    Player cannot meta game a plan, because this particular player has no game knowledge.

    In fact as I’ve looked for an answer, I find little to no new player briefing book to get the player to at least the same level as his/her PC.

    Another example, that as a DM at least I have a plan on how to handle, traps, basic Dungeoneering, basic survival…

    I’m a 30 year DM, and I recently played in a game as a PC, I had my character run into rooms, without checking/looking or even thinking about traps. DM says to me opps, you set off a trap, take 12 points damage…Character dead. After the session he asked me why I played that way, thought I would know better… I told him obviously I do, but my character didn’t. He wasn’t breathing long enough to learn anything…

    1. The giant rats problem is a tricky one. I think to help the PC survive, you have to terrify the player. So when the PC enters the cellar you could have him gradually notice more and more rats appearing from their burrows. They could gather about him in every larger numbers. Perhaps a couple of braver/more hungry rats could dart in to attack him. Let him kill them and tell him it has no effect whatsoever on the vast numbers of rats now gathered in the cellar. Perhaps if they do dart in and swarm him, his first sword swing could drive them back for a round and kill a couple while you describe the attack having mono effect whatsoever on the swarm.

      I’d run away after that!

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