Thursday 7 April 2011

How to create great dungeons

The dungeoncrawl seems to be going out of fashion with 4e Dungeons and Dragons. Instead of long winding tunnels full of complex passages and secret doors, the game encourages a couple of big set pieces per dungeon. Publishers like Goodman Games are getting back in the swing of good old-fashioned dungeoncrawls with their Dungeon Crawl Classics range and as the OSR grows and grows so does the need for good underground exploration.

But there's no reason why you can't have a great dungeon-based adventure with any edition or any fantasy game. We're going to look at exactly what you need to craft fantastic dungeons from your imagination.

Dungeon History

The key to making a great dungeon is to make it feel like a living, breathing place, full of tribes of monsters, an economy and architecture. The best way to start building your dungeon is by thinking up a history for it. You don't have to go too far back into the past - just sketch out a few key historical events that led to the forging of your dungeon. For instance, a mad mage (aren't they all?) built an underground lair to keep out of the eyes of the king while he hatched his evil scheme. However, he was found and the place was ransacked. A year later a tribe of kobolds made their lair in the entrance and over time moved deeper into the dungeon while new creatures, like orcs and goblins took up residence in the upper levels. This is a very basic history, but you get the picture.

Once you have an outlined history, you can start filling in more details about the monsters who live there. Did they move in to find loot? Or are they attempting to build an underground empire? This brings us onto our next point:

Dungeon Ecology

You'll usually want two or three races occupying a single dungeon. This adds variety whilst not overloading the players with too much information. Usually different races appear on different levels of the dungeon, so figure out why certain races are where they are. Do the goblin have a small war going on between the Kobolds on the level below? Is it set up like a religious order with the pions inhabiting the top levels and the archpriests at the bottom? Do the races on the extreme top and bottom levels know of each others existence? The latter could be a catalyst for some great roleplay. Figure out what the climate and architecture is like on different levels. More intelligent creatures are more likely to have more intricate architecture and furniture, whilst the dumber ones sit on crates and sleep on hay.

The Rooms

Rooms are the real meat of the dungeon. Inside rooms anything can happen. There could be a family of hulking ogres or a puzzle to solve. The trick is to keep players on their toes. Don't make every room the same old bland 'four walls without much going on'. I find that if you build your dungeon on some kind of theme then inspiration comes easier. Rather than being an everyday medieval dungeon, make it an Egyptian tomb but with Norse influences, or represent the 9 circles of hell but have a 'heavenly' place right at the bottom level. You don't want your players to think; "Ah, there's another sarcophagus, there'll be a mummy in it", so put a living goblin in there who has been locked up in solitary confinement.

Also try and mix up encounters. Perhaps have 2 puzzles, 2 easy encounters, a medium encounter and a difficult encounter on one floor. Don't have your goblins just sitting around waiting for a fight, have them wandering around or taking part in some kind of goblin annual celebration. Bring the place to life!

The Big Bad

This is the guy or woman the adventurers have been working towards, the meanest of the lot. Again, try and find out what motivates the boss and write a little background for her. But again, flip the players' expectations. Make them fight a version of the boss on every level, where she gets stronger and better equipped the deeper they go; or maybe feed the players information that monster A is the boss, but then lead them to believe it's monster B but in actuality it's monster C.

I hope this little guide has been helpful to you when you come to making your dungeons. If you have any other tips you'd like to share just pop them in the comments.


  1. well done. great Dungeon tips. I like the idea of having multiple races in the same dungeon that fight amongst each-other. Having the PC's come exploring said dungeon during the midst of one of those conflicts might make for a pretty good stealthy dungeon sneak and slide kind of quest.

  2. Good advice. Another thing you might try is mixing it up a bit, like dungeons that have a climactic finish that don't involve a big bad. Maybe it's a trap or difficult terrain that must be crossed, or perhaps, rather like the computer at the end of portal, there's "big bad" that can't itself fight, but is well protected.

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