5E Fire and Water: Designing themed dungeons
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  1. #1
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    Fire and Water: Designing themed dungeons

    Fire and Water - Designing themed dungeons

    Table of contents
    1 - Dungeon theme basics
    2 - Dungeon side views
    3 - Narrative and enemies
    4 - Boss battles
    5 - Designing a boss room
    6 - Player boss strategies
    7 - Boss behavior
    8 - Ending a dungeon

    Other resources:
    Quickleaf wrote this elaborate piece on dungeon design. This thread is basically a response to his, check it out:
    The Shadow in the Flame: a workshop on designing dungeon, monsters and a villain

    1 - Dungeon theme basics

    One of the questions that often pops up on these forums, is "how do I design a dungeon, and how do I make my dungeon interesting?" I am a strong supporter of the idea that dungeons work best when supported by a strong theme. And in my current pirate campaign, that theme has always been water. Water can be used in many creative ways, and aquatic creatures often don't see that much use in D&D campaigns, which makes them perfect when you want to surprise your players.

    My pirate campaign is moving towards a pretty climactic battle in the basement of a tower on the island of Salt. The tower was built by dwarven pirates, who call themselves the Oarsmen. They had big secret plans for the tower, but they never succeeded in finishing their work. That is why the basement of the tower, called the Underhaven, was never completed. It was supposed to be an underwater harbor, which makes perfect sense given the fact that the Oarsmen build lots of submarines. But the defenses of the harbor, and the harbor itself, were only partially constructed. As it just so happens, this provides my villains with a convenient weakness to exploit.

    The Underhaven will be a dungeon. And in this thread I would like to share my steps towards designing a themed dungeon. Note that I'm running a 3.5 campaign, but I'm hopeful that the ideas I present are just as useful in any other editions of D&D. And feel free to also share your own ideas regarding this dungeon, and dungeon design in general. The players will be playing this dungeon next friday (11 Aug), so I might add any good suggestions that are made before that time.

    I've used the theme of water in many ways before when designing my dungeons, because my players have been through lots of these water-themed dungeons already. Its a challenge to come up with a new way to use water every single time. I also want to make sure that I tick all the design boxes that I've set for myself:

    -Water should be involved
    -There should be secrets
    -There should be skill challenges
    -There should be branching paths
    -There should be interesting combat encounters
    -The lay out should make narrative sense
    -Be cautious of square-room syndrome
    -Use height differences


    Water hazards
    Since the tower is heated with steam, it's a logical step to also use steam as our main hazard. I'm thinking of obstacles where the players must turn off the steam that is blocking their path, or manipulate valves to unlock certain doors. Steam could also obscure enemies from sight. Some rooms may be flooded, forcing them to swim. And wet floors could force balance checks when they run, or make the use of electricity spells very dangerous. I want my players to think about their environment.

    Secrets
    One of my players plays an elf. And he loves finding secret doors. I think this is an excellent opportunity for me to provide optional roads for my players. They may be able to cut corners, and drop into rooms via maintenance shafts, thus circumventing some of my obstacles. One of my most important rules regarding secret doors, is that they can't be mandatory, and they preferably provide the players with some interesting choice. Just because you find a secret tunnel, does not mean you want to go in there. And what if the tunnel is really narrow, and only small characters can enter? Will they dare split up?

    Skill challenges
    A dungeon isn't just a long row of rooms with enemies in them. My players seem to have the most fun, when they get to use their skills and abilities in creative ways. And so I deliberately throw obstacles in their path that demand a skill check of some sort. Some times a choice of going left or right, is decided simply because the players fail to lift a door and open a path. But you want to be mindful that the players don't just get horribly stuck.

    Branching paths
    D&D is all about choices. If your dungeon is basically just one long corridor, then the players are not making any interesting choices when it comes to exploration. Likewise, if the dungeon is just a giant maze of empty rooms, then there is a lot of choice, but the choices are meaningless. I believe in meaningful content. There should be the occasional choice of going left or right, or maybe forward. But eventually it has to lead somewhere interesting. I don't just put dead ends in my dungeon, unless there is something of interest at the end of the corridor. And we'll get more into that in a bit when we start covering the lay out of my dungeon.

    Interesting combat encounters

    I hate it when a combat encounter is just a bunch of enemies standing in a square room. There needs to be suspense, and an interesting situation involved with the fight. I think the videogame Dark Souls is a great example of how to be creative in enemy placement. Don't just throw enemies about randomly, but create ambushes, flanking enemies, and enemies that attack from vantage points. For this reason I'm going to put some of the theme ideas to good use when setting up combat encounters in this dungeon.

    The narrative
    The story is equally important in a dungeon. The players are trying to uncover what is going on, and they will find various clues as they explore the dungeon. Not every path they take will lead to the finish line, but it could lead them to other clues they would otherwise miss. This form of storytelling is also an excellent way to foreshadow later hazards, or to teach the players how to use the theme of the dungeon to their advantage. The end goal is for the players to realize that the tower is a valuable war-asset, that must be defended from the enemy invaders at all costs. If they abandon it (which is an option), it will have dire consequences on their war against the big bad. They may end up losing a lot of allies unless they stop the invaders.

    Square-room syndrome
    One of the biggest dangers when designing a dungeon, is making every room or corridor just a simple square. Sure, its easy design-wise, but it is also terribly boring. Which is why I'll try to add at least a few rounded corridors and rooms to break up the monotony. Even minor indentations and extrusions can help turn a square room into something a little bit more interesting.

    Height differences
    While we tend to draw out our dungeons from a flat top down view, that does not mean our dungeons themselves are without depth. Dungeons have height differences. Staircases that go up and down, ladders, crawling spaces, balconies, underwater passages, etc. Height differences not only make your dungeon more interesting, but they provide interesting angles of attack for both the players and your baddies.


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    This is the first part of the Underhaven that I've come up with. I've deliberately kept the design simplistic, so that I can show this map to my players, and they won't be too distracted by details on the map itself. I want my storytelling to paint the picture, and the map to simply serve as a clarification for orientation and positioning. Most of the rooms in the dungeon will be wet and slippery, due to all the leaking steam. Running is discouraged, and will require balance checks for the players.

    A - The entrance
    The players enter by descending down a flight of stairs, and they arrive in a room with various pipes and dials, and a large stone tablet on the wall. The two floodgates to the east are open, and the players are free to continue into the next room. I added two side rooms for narrative reasons. An office, where the workers would be clocking in and out every day, and a dressing room, where the workers get their gear and store their belongings. The players may find loot here, if I so choose. I could drop an enemy in the dressing room, but I think I'll build up some suspense first, and leave the first two rooms free of enemies. The tablet on the wall will show the players that the defenses of the Underhaven were not completed, and is there just to give the players an obvious goal.

    B - Junction
    The players can hear loud hissing and steam eminating from the stairs to the north and south. The noise is almost deafening, and makes it impossible to carry a normal conversation. A hidden maitenance shaft on the east wall, leads to a hatch that drops into a corridor further in the complex. This is an excellent opportunity for an ambush, but more on that later.

    C - Pressure regulation room
    This is where steam pressure is distributed to seal off important flood gates. The room is filled with steam (thus obscuring monsters from sight), and several pipes have been slashed open. This room is perfect to have some of our horrible monsters appear from the steam. More on those later. Not all pipes are destroyed however. If the players don't use the secret maintenance shaft, they may need to take the pressure off of one of the doors, through violence, or by opening the valve with a high strength check. They may also need to have some knowledge of engineering to correctly operate the valves, which would also require a skill check.

    D - Steam hazard room
    In this room the road is blocked by hot steam, and the flood gate to the north is closed and sealed by steam pressure. The players could get creative with spells to overcome this obstacle, or go to the Furnace room in the north to turn off the heat. I may have some enemies drop from the ceiling to catch unweary adventurers here. The valve to open the north gate is broken, and the valve handle lies on the other side of the steam, in room H. If the players are creative, they may be able to acquire it.

    E - Connecting corridor

    The players can get to this room by depressuring the floodgate to the south, or using the secret maintenance shaft. Another floodgate leads north, but is partially closed. Small characters can pass underneath it, or they could lift it with a succesful strength check. To the east are the showers, which is a perfect spot for an ambush.

    F - Showers
    This room's main purpose is to allow an ambush in a tight space to occur. If the players used the secret maintenance shaft to drop into this corridor, they may be seperated from their party, and things could get dicy.

    G - Furnace room
    The players can turn off the heat here, to bypass the steam hazard in room D. I'll have a couple of enemies pop up from around the corners here. Maybe the players will use the furnace to their advantage during combat in some way. If the players cannot turn the handle with a succesful strength check, some cold or water spells will also suffice to turn the furnace off. This also means the steam in room I will no longer be a problem.

    H - Staircase room
    Once the players have found a way to bypass the steam hazard, they can continue down the stairs into room I.

    I - Flooded room
    This room has a walkway to the left, which is blocked by hot steam, and a flooded area to the right. The players may be able to turn off the steam with the valve, if they pass their strength check, or they can swim underneath the steam. The water provides a perfect opportunity for enemies from below the surface to amsbush the players. I may also have more enemies drop from the ceiling in this room. The room continues to the north, into the next area of the Underhaven, which we will cover next time.

    Next time we will also look at some of the enemies I've selected for this dungeon, and how they'll be used.
    Last edited by Imaculata; Thursday, 10th August, 2017 at 02:47 PM.

  2. #2
    If you're running a 3.5 campaign, but giving general advice, shouldn't this be in the general RPG forum, and not the 5e one?

    shrug.

    Either way, I agree with most of what you're saying here. For me, having built my house myself, I had learned that when designing something, it has to make sense. Square/rectangle rooms are boring, but the they are the most efficient and easiest to build into a structure. So they should dominate. And there should be rooms that would support whoever is living there. Storerooms, lavatorys, closets, bedrooms, dining areas, entertainment areas, kitchen, pantry, garbage disposal, etc.

    Basically, the opposite of all the old TSR modules I kid, because I LOVE AD&D, and fully acknowledge that dungeons that don't make sense but are around a theme are way more fun. And that's what's important--to have fun. So I'm not a huge stickler on all that. Speaking of water, a couple years ago I did release an adventure that is solely around water, including large portions of it that take place underwater. It's a neat theme to build on, and gives opportunity to create guidelines on how spells might work differently, etc.

  3. #3
    @Imaculata

    Fun stuff! I love using water as a feature in dungeons.

    Fantastic map! What software did you use?

  4. #4
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    If you wanted to added some displacement - something that encourages/forces players to move/remain active, then you could start the dungeon at a low, maybe even cool temperature. Then have things literally heat up - with key valves placed around the dungeon that must be opened to cool things down and save everyone from cooking to death.

    Why's it heating up? The place has central heating, perhaps using an enslave fire elemental or five, an old geothermic vent or some other potent heat source - and when the players enter, the dungeon naturally warms up, triggered by their presence. It's a comfort feature, a marvel of tinkering technology. However, while the central heating works fine, the ventilation/regulator has jammed, either through chance or by sabotage, as the plot demands. Perhaps luring the players here was part of some elaborate trap or a test. Now the whole place will continue to heat up until something pops or the regulator valves are set correctly.

    This is also a good technique to encourage your players to explore areas of the dungeon they might not bother with, and provides the DM with a resource - information as to the location of each valve - that can be provided as a reward, as required.
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  5. #5
    I'll also add, it can be good if you incorporate natural dungeon features into constructed features. For example, here is one map from my Felk Mor mega adventure, where I used actual underground water caverns as a template. This map illustrates how you can illustrate depth differences in a dungeon. The blue areas are areas underwater, and there is a note in the adventure how each submerged portion is connected below the other tunnels, allowing a PC to enter one blue area, and emerge from another (if they are willing to take the risk they won't drown in the process). This encourages adventurers to be extra creative in the exploration phase of the game.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sacrosanct View Post
    If you're running a 3.5 campaign, but giving general advice, shouldn't this be in the general RPG forum, and not the 5e one?
    The thread isn't specifically about 3.5, and it is sort of intended as a response to the wonderful thread started by Quickleaf regarding dungeon design. Please also check that out if you haven't already.

    Quote Originally Posted by mrpopstar View Post
    @Imaculata

    Fun stuff! I love using water as a feature in dungeons.

    Fantastic map! What software did you use?

    Thanks, I use Photoshop. I use what ever clip art I can find online, along with layers, layer effects and some free fonts.

    Quote Originally Posted by Sacrosanct View Post
    I'll also add, it can be good if you incorporate natural dungeon features into constructed features. For example, here is one map from my Felk Mor mega adventure, where I used actual underground water caverns as a template. This map illustrates how you can illustrate depth differences in a dungeon. The blue areas are areas underwater, and there is a note in the adventure how each submerged portion is connected below the other tunnels, allowing a PC to enter one blue area, and emerge from another (if they are willing to take the risk they won't drown in the process). This encourages adventurers to be extra creative in the exploration phase of the game.
    Wonderful map. I like giving my players underwater passages as optional routes, because there's always a feeling of unease when players are presented with a situation where they need to hold their breath. I may include some in the next part of the dungeon.
    Last edited by Imaculata; Monday, 7th August, 2017 at 09:28 PM.
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    Also note that steam can hinder visibility, not just make things slippery.

    One thing I will add, as something to watch out for or avoid all together, is placing treasure that is required to proceed in some future part of the dungeon. This annoys me to no end.

    For instance, the guard carries a potion of water breathing. Which is required to enter the throne room later on. (Now, if it's intended that part of the protection of the throne room is being able to breath water and the potion is for visitor, ok. But that's an expensive way to see guests in.)

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    Quote Originally Posted by LordEntrails View Post
    Also note that steam can hinder visibility, not just make things slippery.
    This is something I definitely plan to use for some of the combat encounters. I have some terrifying enemies planned that will be extra scary when suddenly emerging from the steam.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LordEntrails View Post
    One thing I will add, as something to watch out for or avoid all together, is placing treasure that is required to proceed in some future part of the dungeon. This annoys me to no end.
    This is an important point. I never design my dungeons in such a way that one obscure item is required for progression, unless the item itself is the goal of the dungeon. If a door requires a key, then maybe there are also other ways to bypass the door. If a waterbreathing potion is required for a long underwater section, then there had better be alternate roads that don't require it, or there should simply be spots to go for air.

    For example, I have some gates in this dungeon that are locked by pressurised steam. The players can open the door by finding a valve handle and releasing the pressure. But they can also just smash the pipes, and unleash the steam that way, because they might not be strong enough to turn the valve handle. They can even bypass the door entirely via a secret passage. Lastly, they could do something I haven't anticipated, such as blow up the door with explosives, or use a Knock spell... and I can't think of a reason why that wouldn't work.

    As a DM it is not my goal to frustrate my players, but to engage them... to provide choices and encourage them to be creative. So if the players come up with something I hadn't thought of, that should be rewarded, not punished. Likewise, if my players choose to completely ignore an obstacle I put in front of them, that should also be fine, as long as this choice carries some weight. Which is why you want to be careful with putting mandatory key items behind locked doors.

    So if the players don't care about opening the gate in room D, then that's perfectly fine. That is a choice, and the consequence of that choice is that they avoid being ambushed in room F and G, but they'll have to find some other way to deal with the steam in room D and I. I could even compensate for the lack of combat in such a case, by adding an extra combat encounter in room I, and the players would never know that I added some extra enemies. -But this might invalidate their choice to some extent, so I probably won't do that.
    Last edited by Imaculata; Monday, 7th August, 2017 at 10:55 PM.

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Imaculata View Post
    This is an important point. I never design my dungeons in such a way that one obscure item is required for progression, unless the item itself is the goal of the dungeon. If a door requires a key, then maybe there are also other ways to bypass the door. If a waterbreathing potion is required for a long underwater section, then there had better be alternate roads that don't require it, or there should simply be spots to go for air..
    This is important. In the aforementioned underwater adventure I had done (well, about 1/2 is underwater, the other 1/2 is on land), it was very important that PCs had options to explore the actual adventure itself if:

    --they didn't have a caster to grant water breathing and/or free action
    --they didn't find one or two options to assist in that area


    Therefore, it's very important to have alternate paths for PCs. Things that may seem obvious to you as the DM may never cross the minds of the players, and it can be incredibly frustrating if they are held up at a brick wall.

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    I think there's something to be said for showing off the lock before PC's have access to the key. I don't think that means that you necessarily prevent a clear group of players from bypassing the lock from time to time, but setting up a situation that says "this is where we need to go, let's go find out how to get there" is a way to establish, early on, a tangible short-term goal for the adventure. Even better if the discovery of the key creates recognition of the door, especially in cases where the "key" is a bit (or very) non-standard.

    Take the above-mentioned steam-locked door. If the release valve is found near or even in the same "room" as the door, then you can't really call that a key; functionally, it becomes no different than a door knob. If the release valve is located elsewhere, there needs to be some way to connect its function as a key to the door that's being locked. Maybe the PC's have to follow the piping through the dungeon a ways. Maybe the valve is located in a far-off area where the door is nonetheless visible. You might also play with sound cues. The most important point is the moment of recognition; it should be fairly obvious (far more obvious than you'd think it would need to be).

    And then, of course, some smart PC might try something you hadn't anticipated (or maybe you had), and it would totally work, ruining all your hard work designing the key detour. That's simple enough; you just reward the cleverness by letting it work. Bypassing those kinds of challenges is their own reward.

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