Why Your Dungeons Should Have More than One Entrance

It’s a sad fact of life, but most commercially available dungeons only seem to have one—or at the most two—entrances.

The Sunken Stair by Matt Morrow

The Sunken Stair by Matt Morrow

 

Depending on the dungeon’s size, this can be somewhat limiting, a little bit unimaginative and unrealistic (or all three). After all, when was the last time you lived or worked somewhere with only one way in or out? Obviously, most dungeons don’t have windows but most structures (and apartment buildings, schools or businesses) have more than one door. (At Raging Swan Press Global HQ we are posh; we’ve got three external doors!)

In terms of game play, only having one way in or out immediately limits the party’s options and gives them no meaningful choice (or reward for clever play if they find a secret or hidden way in). When I ran Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands in my Borderland of Adventure campaign, for example, the adventurers found the stream tunnel leading from the donjon to the dungeons below the main keep, which allowed them to surprise the Blood Moon goblins dwelling therein. This made them happy—they pulled one over the goblins—and led to some fun memorable play instead of them just plodding down the stairs into the goblins’ guardroom.

In terms of realism and verisimilitude, if there is only one way in or out it will clearly be one of the busiest parts of the dungeon. This somewhat reduces the party’s tactical options and makes it far easier for organised inhabitants to watch for (and defend against) intruders. (It also makes it easy for the dungeon denizens to be trapped in their home, something I’m sure they’d be keen to avoid).

It also massively restricts the dungeon’s denizens. In a dungeon hosting more than one faction, the one controling the entrance controls the dungeon (or is constantly skirmishing with the other dungeon denizens). After all, who wouldn’t want to control such a valuable piece of territory—even if only to deny to one’s rivals or enemies?

Different Dungeon Entrances

Good news: not all dungeon entrances must be of the typical variety.

While there’s nothing wrong with more than one “normal” entrance—dungeons can have more than one obvious entrance—sometimes its fun to have at least one other unexpected or atypical entrance. Such entrances could include:

  • A natural chimney or fissures in the rock.
  • A flooded (or partially flooded) tunnel leading from a lake, pool or river into the dungeon.
  • A tunnel created by the actions of a burrowing or tunnelling creature. Many creatures—ankhegs, purple worms and bulettes to name three—can easily create a tunnel intersecting the dungeon.
  • A magic portal. In campaign worlds with a high level of magic, a magic portal could easily provide an alternative way into a dungeon.
  • A secret passage. A standard part of many dungeons, secret passages provide emergency escape routes, sally ports and more for dungeon dwellers. Normally their exit is well hidden—perhaps in a dense grove of trees, abandoned building or the like, making them challenging (and rewarding) to find.
  • Remember, some or all of the dungeon inhabitants may—or may not—know of this other entrance. It could be heavily trapped and guarded or it could be wholly unknown to the residents—who will likely be stunned or surprised when intruders emerge from an unexpected direction. Additionally, such additional entrances might not be permanent or even original. In the case of flooded passageways, sometimes they might be more accessible than others as the water level within rises and falls.

And as a final aside, remember these thoughts can be applied just as easily to dungeon levels and sub-levels. As I design Gloamhold, I’m deliberately including multiple connections between the various levels, so the PCs aren’t forced down one set path. When designing all but the smallest dungeon, giving the adventurers meaningful choice is what it’s all about!

What Do You Think?

Do you often have multiple entrances or exits to your dungeon? Does it needlessly complicate matters? Do your players love finding them? Let me know, in the comments below.

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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6 thoughts on “Why Your Dungeons Should Have More than One Entrance

  1. I had the same thought while running the Sunless Citadel adventure. There is a goblin tribe that has to go through their rival’s (kobolds) territory to reach the surface. It just seemed a little stifling and unrealistic.

  2. Rappan Athuk really gets this one right. I’m sure they have about a dozen entrances, all of varying degrees of accessibility (and traps/ guards/ pure nastiness)

  3. Despite our games existing in a magical universe, air still has to flow between the surface and the depths. Intelligent creatures who live in the caves usually still want to cook their food, and that smoke has to go somewhere.

    Fissures and chimneys are probably my favorite secondary entrances, and I usually try to have one “hidden” back door. Intelligent monsters know they’re going to be hunted, and it’s better to run away when faced with savage “heroes” intent on killing them!

  4. I like to add “windows” and “element escapes” (just fire escapes here on Earth) as well. Unless you really ARE in a windowless box, most large buildings have dozens of ways in and out, but we just don’t use them and wouldn’t do so unless there is an emergency. Finding these unexpected ingresses – or usually they are egresses when the party’s fleeing, initially – is usually part of the adventure, and my players are on the look-out for them from the word, “Go!” if the place they are entering seems to have only one obvious “door”. After all, those Climb points and that badly blocked third-floor window are a match made in the Seventh Heaven, as is Escape Artist and the crack in the wall of the alchemist’s laboratory where his oven exploded…

    • Great point, Stephen. And, of course, exploding ovens are to be positively encouraged.

      I think finding better/different ways into/our of a dungeon are the hallmarks of a good player. After all, the nominal entrance is a bit like an airlock on a spaceship. It’s going to be well defended, so why go that way?