D&D 5E Dungeon Design

jgsugden

Legend
Let's say you're the type of DM who is building a homebrew dungeon for your PCs to explore. You want it to cover about 12 to 20 hours of exploration, and you're building it for 7th or 8th level PCs. GENERALLY SPEAKING: How do you go about it? What considerations do you focus on? I'm not asking you to design a dungeon here - I'm asking you to think about the things you consider when building the dungeon.

Here are some examples of things I think about when building the dungeon:

1.) Where did the space come from? Is it a natural cavern, a ruined fortress, or a crashed spelljammer? Why is it there, and who has been in the space before?

2.) Is it navigable? When the PCs are inside of it, does the space make sense for combats and exploration? A huge battle in a 5' wide corridor is a unique challenge if done right, but is usually just a boring disaster. Am I selecting a design that will both make sense for the story of the location and make the location a fun place for the PCs to explore?

3.) What makes the location(s) interesting places to be?What unusual features of the entire location, or of specific locations within the larger location, will be interesting for the PCs to encounter? Is there anti-gravity? Is there quicksand? Is there radiation? Brown mold? Green Slime? Temporal distortion? Portals to the Feywild or Shadowfell? Are there monsters that distort their environment like dragons?

4.) What is the story about how the current residents arrived there, and what is their history?Did they all come together? Did they come in phases? Was there conflict between them? How are they still cohabitating?

5.) What can beings in one area sense about other areas?If the PCs engage in combat in the entrance, what can beings in other rooms hear, smell, or otherwise sense? How will that impact them? It usually is not great to have an entire complex of 'bad guys' gang tackle the PCs at once ... is that what would happen naturally if the PCs launch a fireball/thunderwave in the first room? What logical things can I introduce that would reduce the chances of something like that taking place? Should I introduce them?
 
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Reynard

Legend
When I do "one and done" dungeons (as opposed to a mega-dungeon for campaign length play) I tend to focus on theme and build out from there. A mad wizard's tower, or the outpost of an invading duergar army, or lava tubes formerly inhabited by a cult of fire elementalists, or whatever. In addition to theme, i usually have an idea or two for a good old fashioned Gygaxian trick -- something weird and wonderful and deadly and rewarding. With those things in mind, I will start building.

I am okay with the "Game" part of RPG so I have no compunction about filling the dungeon with things to do -- monsters, puzzles, traps, NPCs and weirdness. It is a game and exploring dungeons is fun -- pants wetting, cold sweat haunted house fun, but still fun.

One thing i think it is important to keep in mind is the PC capabilities. Assuming i am designing for my group and I know both the players and the characters, I will create "spotlight" challenges -- a ghost the bard has to record the tale of to set free, a complex arcane machine for the wizard, an irresistible pile of deadly loot for the barbarian-rogue, etc... I want their spells and class abilities to come into play in key ways at least once or twice.
 

I like building my dungeons around a central theme, and focus a lot on offering interesting means of navigation.

Imagine for example a passage that is out of reach, and would require a climb. Do the players take the easy path, or do they put the extra effort in, and make that climb to take an alternate path? And what consequences will this have for their exploration? Is there hidden treasure up there? Or a shortcut perhaps?

Maybe a treacherous swim through a submerged passage actually allows the players to avoid a deadly trap, or avoid an encounter with a powerful foe?

I also ask myself: If there is a door to the left, and a door to the right, what makes them different? I believe you should give your players something to base their decission on. Is one door perhaps ajar, while the other is locked? Does one lead into darkness and the other towards light? Or perhaps a nasty smell eminates from one of the doors, or they hear an ominous sound?

Most importantly, I remove rooms that are a waste of time and focus on meaningful content. If your dungeon contains an empty room, considering filling it with something interesting, or removing it entirely. That boring dead end does not need to be there, and may even speed up gameplay when it's gone.
 
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delericho

Legend
I start with a very basic node map, showing the rooms and the connections between them. This allows me to ensure that there are paths through the dungeons, that it all fits together well, and that there are choices of where to go next in most locations.

I also start with a theme for the dungeon - dwarven citadel, mad wizard's tower, or whatever.

Those two things always come close together. It's possible that either may come first.

Then I work out a little history for the place: how did it go from being whatever it was to whatever it is now? Were there any waves of different occupiers who might have made their mark?

And then I'll populate it, placing an encounter in most, but not all, rooms; then adding complications like traps, one way passages, and the like; and make sure to add treasure.

At some point I'll probably replace my node map with a better (but still poor!) one that I've drawn myself. But I don't always have time to do that - and the node version does well enough.
 

DND_Reborn

The High Aldwin
The most important thing for myself when designing any space in my game world is this: IS IT ORGANIC?

How did it come about? Does it makes sense in the world to exist? Are the inhabitants there for a reason? And so on...
 

cbwjm

Legend
I like to think about why it's there, sometimes it's as easy as a series of natural caverns, other time it's an old dwarven mine.

I might think about why the current inhabitants moved in, but it can often be as simple as the dwarves abandoned the mine and later some orcs moved in.

If it's a large dungeon, I like a couple entrances at least. Some might be more accessible than others.

Traps and puzzles. I'll consider these but it should be noted that I don't really put many in if it is a living area with regular movement going in and out. The orcs likely won't have many traps, if any, but an ancient tomb of a necromancer king is likely to have many and likely to have some necromantic magic involved rather than just some pit traps.

I have a large floating earth node in my world which is home to elementals of the 4 prime elements, as well as a number of mephits. It was placed there by primordials as an engine to create genasi followers from the humans in their domain to serve as soldiers in a great war.

The elementals still inhabit this dungeon as guardians of the keys which must all come together to unlock the chamber to imbue new soldiers.

At the top of this earth node is an entrance leading into the air elemental portion, the main entrance is in the centre and leads to a central point with entrances to all four elemental areas. Finally, perhaps more deadly than others, is an outlet near the bottom where liquid fire pours into a lake below.

There are some traps and puzzles for the unwary, essentially, you need to be or need to think like an elemental to get through unscathed. One room in the water elemental section looks like a dead end, but if you stop and think that you crossed a bridge over a body of water then maybe there is another way that you should be going.
 

Reynard

Legend
The most important thing for myself when designing any space in my game world is this: IS IT ORGANIC?

How did it come about? Does it makes sense in the world to exist? Are the inhabitants there for a reason? And so on...
I think that you can do this but its important to allow the weirdness inherent in the milieu and the idea of many occupants over long periods of to inject the dungeon with a sense of wonder. Even if it's the lair of a bunch of goblinoids and the PCs are charged with eliminating their shaman before they cast some terrible spell, it's worth thinking about what other races, armies, cults and madmen have occupied the space in the past.
 

DND_Reborn

The High Aldwin
I think that you can do this but its important to allow the weirdness inherent in the milieu and the idea of many occupants over long periods of to inject the dungeon with a sense of wonder. Even if it's the lair of a bunch of goblinoids and the PCs are charged with eliminating their shaman before they cast some terrible spell, it's worth thinking about what other races, armies, cults and madmen have occupied the space in the past.
It is is appropriate to the space, given those questions, then certainly any space can have a history to it.

I am currently working on a "megacity"-type project which has a very long history of many types of residents, so those things are appropriate to the space.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Those are great questions to ask.

One that I consider important, so important I would call it foundational, is "What will the PCs be doing in this dungeon?"

Because if the entire premise is "they're sneaking in disguised as cultists", then the usual room-by-room descriptions with traps and monsters probably isn't the right approach for writing up the dungeon because it won't convey the details the players need about cult procedures, personalities, initiation, etc.
 


Hussar

Legend
Some basic Dungeon Design Stuff:

1. I try to have a sort of 3 tier approach to how alert the dungeon is. Rest - Alarm Raised - Full Alert. ((Note, this obviously depends on the dungeon - not much of a Full Alert in an abandoned crypt full of traps and the bit of undead)) It's not that hard to do - I just have three maps which rearrange the encounter locations.

2. Put encounters in hallways. This is something that really makes adventures pop. Take those trolls in that room and move them into the hallway - either coming into the room or moving past it, whatever.

3. Give information to the players. Make sure that the players have a way to learn about the layout and inhabitants of the dungeon early on. If they are just randomly exploring, then there's no real choices. But, if they have some information, then they can start choosing paths, avoiding encounters, that sort of thing.
 

aco175

Legend
I'm finishing play of Forge of Fury which has some maps that could be used for inspiration. It is set up that you can get in from a few locations, but one is likely. Each level is kind of its own dungeon in that there are a set of monsters ,or two, that live there and may or may not be on some sort of truce terms with the others. For instance, the orcs and the troglodytes fight, but the duergar and the dragon do not. I like that they all will not come swarming to fight the PCs once they have been discovered in the dungeon.

I like to have blank spaces that make fighting less able to be heard in other areas. This can also be negated with things like noise from a waterfall which also helps to make terrain more useful. I also place areas to rest in the dungeon between the groups of bad guys.
 

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