Dungeon layout, map flow and old school game design


While a good analysis, the OP makes a deep value laden assumption throughout: that linear is bad and muti-branching is good. The OP worships at the altar of "choice" - without stopping to reflect if it is logical or makes for a good story.

I don't agree with this perspective at all. While I do recognize that many share it - a flawed assumption widely shared does not make that value or belief right or correct.
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Squire James

First Post
EricNoah said:
This is the most problematic part of the initial essay. You are, of course, free to value freeform play over story-game style play, but to insist that D&D -- for everyone -- should be "rid of" it ... it's not helpful.


I'm pretty sure he was just expressing an opinion that applied mostly to his own games. Answering "this is the one true way" posts with admonishments are equally unhelpful, and has echoes of religion/politics arguments. All of this is only my opinion, of course!


First Post
EricNoah said:
Part of being a good DM is creating illusions. The DM who has a map/locations and a bunch of encounters, but not keyed ahead of time, can play in a freeform style but create the illusion of a linear story, given practice and skill.

What happens when players use augury or scrying or careful scouting to determine which way to go in that case?


Squire James said:
I'm pretty sure he was just expressing an opinion that applied mostly to his own games.

I'm pretty sure he did no such thing - and instead the writer did exactly what Eric said he did.

Did we read the same article?


Interesting analysis. Naturally, different groups of players might be looking for different types of games, i.e. some prefer linear gaming, others like the illusion that they can simply go anywhere and do anything and that there is always a where to go and a thing to do. I generally prefer players who take the initiative but am always ready to nudge them into action, if not into a specific direction. That said, and as said above, smaller environs don't necessarily engender an easy way to present a non-linear scenario and there are times when you want to place a needle on an obsidian table and not in a haystack. There are good and bad ways to present either style of play and the real trick is discovering in time which has the better chance of being well-received with a particular group on a particular day.

Erik Mona

This is a fascinating post, in part because I wrestled with some of these same issues when writing "The Whispering Cairn," the Age of Worms Adventure Path kick-off module from Dungeon #124. The Cairn is a much smaller dungeon than many of the ones analyzed in Melan's thought-provoking post, but in order to make it more than just a simple dungeon crawl, I put a lockout mechanism in the dungeon and forced the players to leave the cairn midway through and go on a seemingly unrelated mini-quest. I'm very curious what Melan thinks of that type of encounter setup, and how he might incorporate it into his visual model.

One of the most important points in this thread, I think, is that there is not "one true way" of designing a fun adventure. Melan, for example, hates the moathouse section of "Village of Hommlet," but it is one of my favorite dungeons of all time, both as a player and as a DM (I have run it, one one form or another four times).*

Not everyone comes to D&D for the same reason. In my own Age of Worms campaign I have players who love roleplaying and players who seem utterly bored with it. Others are less enamored with fighting and would prefer to spend the whole session shopping. As a member of the RPGA, I played at nearly 500 tables with literally thousands of D&D players. You would be surprised at the range of interests and stylistic preferences out there in D&D land. Some people love mapping, some love puzzles. Some gamers enjoy anachronistic puns, and some cringe the slightest sign of silliness.

Accordingly, players and Dungeon Masters have a wide range of tastes when it comes to dungeon complexity and "linearity." As some have mentioned in this thread, a wide-open approach means planning for lots of encounters the players might not find. With some groups, you can change "might not" to "probably won't." That's fine for a published adventure, because it's not you doing the work. But a lot of DMs, including (I'd wager) some who have posted to this thread, prefer to design things themselves. Creating whole wings of dungeons hidden by secret doors or off the main path to the treasure room is an investment of time they might not be able to afford.

So some context is in order.

I actually agree with you, to a point, that the dungeons that look more complex on your charts are most likely to be more interesting from a mapping perspective, but it cannot be said loudly enough that an interesting map is just the first of many steps involved in creating a great adventure. Monster choice is certainly important, and for my money a certain degree of "plot" is also of paramount importance. There has been a great deal of development for the good in the years since 1974, and it is best to incorporate some of that into new designs rather than conforming to a rigid orthodoxy.

The visual model Melan has developed is useful, and I have really enjoyed reading this thread. I think it might also be worth looking at the models in terms of value. Does a more complex model suggest a larger investment in play time? Does that therefore result in an adventure that provides more bang for the buck? Melan suggested that much of "The Village of Hommlet" was wasted by a boring** village background. Had it been 95% dungeon would it have been a "better" adventure? A better value?

Very thought provoking.


* As an aside, Melan, how dare you call the moathouse dungeon crayfish a more interesting encounter than Lareth the Beautiful? The cleric's staff of striking alone is enough to fell one character in a single round. The encounter has always been very fun when I've run it. :p

** The town itself is no more boring than places like Orlane or Restenford, but the map is absolutely great as a utility player when you need a village on the fly. Were the adventure redesigned today, I'd expect a lot more development of the village to make it a truly useful backdrop, but all of a sudden we're talking about substantially more than the module's original 24 pages.


First Post
Well, my take is that what makes a good or bad map is not an independent objective quality, it can only be judged in the context of the rest of the adventure and the desires of a given group. What works in one area might not work in another. It seems obvious to me that a more "open" design with a lot of options works well in a context in which the PCs are supposed to be kicking around and exploring. IME it doesn't work nearly as well when the PCs have a focused goal they're trying to attain, in that case a more linear design is preferable.

For example, that design works fine for the Caves of Chaos because that's a kill-critters-and-take-their-stuff romp, but I always found it pretty jarring in Descent into the Depths simply because the framing for the latter is that the PCs are in hot pursuit of the Drow conspirators from G3, and every side exploration that dead ends (or worse, leads off to an unmapped part of the underdark) just builds player frustration.

So to me, the key is to figure out "what do I want the high points of this adventure to be?" and design the map accordingly. There's no One True Way that's guaranteed to lead to fun, because different people like different types of adventures, which demand different types of maps.

map complexity

Wow, this thread is a perfect example of why I read EnWorld.

For what it's worth, I'm pretty much in Melan's camp. I prefer a simulationist game, where choice is real, to a linear, more story-driven game.

In my experience, people who like linearity tend to identify as 'storytellers'. People who don't tend to identify as 'simulationists'. I'm guessing this has to do with the fact that, to tell a story, a GM needs to stage a set of carefully balanced encounters in a certain sequence.

Modules got a lot more linear in 2E. Did people who favor a linear dungeon find those modules better than the 1E modules that preceded them?



First Post
I think Melan's post makes a lot more sense if you inser the caveat "Non-linear dungeon design is better for site-based adventures".

If your intent is to tell a story then you don't want or need the players to make a lot of choices. They follow the pre-arranged steps you've set out for them and you keep their interest by providing interesting encounters and a satisfying story element.

That particular style of gaming is somewhat antithetical to many "old schoolers" perception of the game as being a game. I'm fairly certain that's why it didn't occur to Melan to include the caveat in his original post.

For site-based adventures, where the only story is the PC's exploration and confrontation of the adventuring milieu, meaningful player choice is necessary to keep things from getting boring (and provides rewards to players as they progress through the area by making the information they are gathering about the layout of the dungeon relevant to success/failure) and a non-linear dungeon with many points of access to important encounter areas is an excellent way to showcase and facilitate meaningful player choice. Interesting encounters are, as always, important as well - but for those of you who claim that is the only important aspect I suggest you may be missing out on a significant way to add to the enjoyment of the adventuring environment if you focus only on the details of individual encounters and ignore the importance of dungeon layout.

:edit: If it's not obvious from the above, just wanted to add a wholehearted "Excellent analysis" to my comments.


First Post
Ourph said:
If your intent is to tell a story then you don't want or need the players to make a lot of choices.

Now that's just silly. What you actually want is for them to make choices that are important in the context of the story, just as in a exploration-themed adventure you want them to make choices that are important in the context of discovering new things. Choosing whether to go left or right, to explore this cavern or that labyrinth, probably isn't that important in story terms (but it is pretty critical in an exploration adventure); choosing whether to spare the noncombatant or orcs or choosing to fight or parley with the BBEG is important in a story, while in an exploration adventure it's not a big deal if the group never faces those choices. The key is to figure out what kind of game you're running - which generally means figuring out what kind of game the players like better - and setting up the choices so they matter in that context.


First Post
There is and implicit misunderstanding, which I´ll think I can clear up:

The encounters allow for tactical decisions.
The flow-map allows for strategic decisions.

If you have no possibility to learn about the consequences of your strategic decision, then the strategic choices become irrelevant.

You can have non railroading linear adventures, because you still have power over all tactical decisions.

I prefer adventures, where you can make strategic decisions, which means I have, or are able to get knowledge about what is behind the next "door" i.g. about the next encounter.

@Erik Mona: I loved the Whispering Cairn as a player. BUT:
The multi location nature was of a linear type! From a design perspective, we as players were forced to the next encounters to open the door. Very linear w/o the possibility to make a choice. In a flow-map, it doesn´t make a difference if the next encounter is in the wood of weir or just behind the wooden door, as long as there is no alternative to the next encounter. The forks (links) which come out of a node are the important part, not whether you actually leave the dungeon.
Still, Whispering Cairn had memorable encounters, great graphics very good rhythm to it. One of my favorites!

The Shaman

First Post
I think the map should fit the adventure, but that said, I prefer complex maps to linear ones in most cases because they offer more opportunities for meaningful player choices.

I always create much more material than I actually use, and I don't plan "stories" that require the players to choose from a limited set of options in order to hit plot points along the way, so there's no issue of "wasted" work or players "missing" something.

Back in the day, our AD&D group rotated dungeon masters within a shared setting, so that we could each take turns playing and running games with the same pool of characters. One of the other DMs ran an adventure that involved tracking down an assassin and his minions in abandoned mine, and I followed with a quest for a jeweled idol in a volcanic cavern complex. The subject of linearity came up during my adventure, and all of the players (including the previous DM) preferred my cavern complex because it offered so many choices and much more diversity than my friend's more linear lair.

blargney the second

blargney the minute's son
That was great! You helped me figure out how to put the finishing touch on an adventure I'm putting together right now. All it needed was for two of the branches to close up into a loop.

Next I'm going to try overlaying your site skeleton with my adventure flowcharts.

Uncovering hidden areas or secrets is yet another form of reward for resourceful players. Finding a secret door leading to a room with treasure is fun

I'd find another reward type! Treasure isn't a reward in 3.x, it's the raw material for power.

Whizbang Dustyboots

100% that gnome
Holy mackerel, impressive first post.

The only quibble I'd have with the metagame considrations is that I'd like the dungeons to make sense for the purpose of the NPCs. Defensibility is normally high on the list (adventurers want to kill them and take their stuff) but in other cases, other needs may be important, such as the structure of mining tunnels and so on.

I would want to balance the needs of the group with the needs of the NPCs. Believability helps with fun, for me.


First Post
Insightful post, Melan.

Thank you for helping me understand why B1: In Search of the Unknown is my favorite introductory module, and why I never cared for T1: The Village of Hommlet. I'm glad I'm not alone in thinking T1 overrated.


First Post
SWBaxter said:
Ourph said:
If your intent is to tell a story then you don't want or need the players to make a lot of choices.
Now that's just silly. What you actually want is for them to make choices that are important in the context of the story.

Congratulations! You win the Nitpick Olympics.

If you want and need them to make choices "that are important to the context of the story" then the easiest way to do that is to only give them options which advance the context of the story. Which is totally in line with my original point - i.e. linear dungeons are fine for plot-based adventures, not so great for site-based adventures.
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First Post
Ourph said:
Congratulations! You win the Nitpick Olympics.

So, noting that your statement was completely wrong is a "nitpick"? Congratulations! You just won the "respond to what I thought I said, not what I actually said" gold medal.

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