Dungeon layout, map flow and old school game design


One thing about the old school, branching adventures: their non-linear structure probably reads a heck of a lot better to budding DMs than they actually play at the table.

I cut my teeth on the old modules, and the stuff I loved -- freaking loved! -- about those modules were all the weird, secret things that were devilishly hidden behind lost portals or under long-forgotten trap doors. You know what I’m talking about: strange magical effects that would only be produced if one were to correctly place the right number of mystical items in just the right combination at precisely the right moment. Put three rubies in that magical censor and you would be instantly disintegrated, no save. But put two EMERALDS in the censor, and you would open up a gate to the Elemental Plane of Water, where a powerful demigod would give you a permanent +2 to your Wisdom score!

When I would run those modules, I would wait in fevered anticipation for the players to approach one of these special, secret areas. Would this be the time they summoned the Elder Elemental God? Would this be the time they free the angry spectre trapped in the mirror? Oh my, oh my, the possibilities!

But instead, they usually just missed that secret door.

Or maybe worse, sometimes they went over every square inch of the dungeon with a whisk and a magnifying glass, cataloging and mapping every feature with a thoroughness that would make the team from CSI: Greyhawk green with envy. When the PCs did find the super secret special areas, they would systematically dismantle it with grim efficiency, almost never stopping to experiment. They never found out what would happen if two emeralds were placed in the mystical censor, because dammit, those things had real gp value and besides, that dungeon trick stuff was just as likely to screw you as help.

Sometimes I would be so eager to see one of these special secret areas that I would drop hints (often clumsily). The players often missed these hints, or were (rightfully) distrustful. And even if they did follow up, I was usually let down by the result because it felt like I was cheating.

After a while, I began to question the point of some of the more esoteric secret areas. My time making and running dungeons is precious and fleeting. If these super secret area are so hard to find or use that almost no one ever does so, why even put them on the map? A cleverly hidden treasure vault makes perfect sense in a wizard’s tower, and the players will be naturally scouring the tower area for it. But a secret temple lost millennia ago and that absolutely no one knows about and is buried under 12 tons of rubble? Why bother to fully key out something like that when a cryptic suggestion in the text would serve just as well?
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First Post
Quasqueton said:
Presenting data as support for one's opinion tends to invite argument over the opinion. Presenting data straight, as is, invites discussion of the data.

That I would have to disagree with. You might consider philosophers such as Habermas or Foucault on the issue: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivity_(philosophy)

Or, as Richard Unger wrote in the preface to The Ship in the Medival Economy, "It is easy to fall into the trap of concern for the data itself."

Kid Charlemagne

I am the Very Model of a Modern Moderator
Garnfellow said:
One thing about the old school, branching adventures: their non-linear structure probably reads a heck of a lot better to budding DMs than they actually play at the table.

I don't know about that. My 13 year-old self had a real problem figuring out how to use those original modules. When I saw the open-ended module, I couldn't figure out what to do with it. I needed more guidance at the time, whereas now I can figure out what to do with them.

Garnfellow said:
But instead, they usually just missed that secret door.

I'm with you there. Secret doors are a challenge - they're secret, yet as DM, you want them to be found.

As for Melan's point - I think that non-linear vs. linear dungeon design and story concerns can be isolated from one another. One can have a perfectly good story that is non-linear.


First Post
Kid Charlemagne said:
I'm with you there. Secret doors are a challenge - they're secret, yet as DM, you want them to be found.

That attitude is part of the reason why linear dungeons have become so popular. If you have a vested interest in the PCs finding a secret door or discovering a specific item you're much more likely to get that outcome if the PCs have only a single path to follow. If the adventure pretty much stops when the PCs miss the secret door then they'll probably keep searching until they find it. Whereas if there's always another hallway to explore or another level to move onto, that secret door may go undiscovered for the entire campaign. A non-linear dungeon requires the DM to be an impartial judge rather than a cheerleader or storywriter.

Kid Charlemagne

I am the Very Model of a Modern Moderator
Ourph said:
If the adventure pretty much stops when the PCs miss the secret door then they'll probably keep searching until they find it.

True. I tend to avoid such things as much as I can in my games - the secret door may conceal something cool, but I don't have any problem if they miss it. Any unused/undiscovered design-work from one scenario can be made use of in a later one if it fits, or even used in a later campaign.


I don't view secret doors as a device to keep things hidden from PCs but rather to explain why other NPCs or creatures haven't discovered what is beyond them.


First Post
Melan, excellent post. Have you done any other dungeons or take requests perhaps?
I would love to see The Caverns of Thracia analyzed what with the mulitiude of secret doors and sub-levels.


First Post
Melan said:
As for getting good maps, I highly recommend anything Paul Jaquays did (Necromancer Games recently re-released Caverns of Thracia, which is a good start), but there is no way his maps are getting graphed. Simply too complex - Paul's use of the third dimension is unparalleled in game design.

Should have read the whole thread first. :( Can you be convinced to try otherwise?


First Post
Very nicely thought out Melan. Man, I would never have the patience to sit down and organize it all out like that.

On the whole, though, I find that I also tend to like linear dungeons that MAKE SENSE. For me this is the biggy. Items and "clues" and what not (i.e. "important" things) can easily be put at "bottleneck" locations between areas on the map if you wanted to have variety in types of mapping, of course, but, as the others have said, I really think the map has to make sense and harmonize well with the basic dungeon/adventure design.

But others have already said basically this anyway. Just wanted to say "hoorah" to your effort and add my two cents. :)

secret passages

We could start a whole extra thread on the subject of whether the PCs should always find all the hidden/secret areas in a dungeon, lest they be 'wasted'.

In my opinion it is fine if they aren't found. When I play D&D I don't want the DM to decide what treasure I should get this week. Rather, I want him to sprinkle a campaign world with treasures, some well guarded, others merely hidden, and let my character try to find them to the best of his ability.

For my PC's +13 Search skill (in which I invested many ranks, and which is achieved with the help of a magical item my PC paid dearly for) to matter, the DM can't have predetermined how much treasure the party 'should' get, or rather, how much he is going to 'give out'. If I know a DM has all this predetermined, I won't bother taking ranks in search at all!



First Post
Yes, yes, yes! An excellent idea regarding the secret passages....

I'd love to hear other's ideas on these in overall design. :)


Rothe said:
Should have read the whole thread first. :( Can you be convinced to try otherwise?
Probably, but it would be abstracted further than the maps I analysed, and the end result would still be a very complicated (and probably graphically unintuitive) diagram. Maybe later.

Quasqueton: being objective leads to information-free truisms like "the sky is blue", "racism is wrong" and "water is wet". Since roleplaying games and are inherently subjective, I don't see much value in discussing them "objectively".


First Post
ironregime said:
I pretty much agree with arscott and Vrecknidj.

What if I designed a really awesome, multi-dimensional dungeon map with lots of ways the players could go, and then instead of making a key of encounters, I just sat down and made a list of all the fun and important encounters that the PCs should experience before they got to the end?

That's exactly how I run dungeons. I admit I don't do many dungeons, but when I do, it seems to work out pretty well. Linear dungeons (depending on the scenario) just don't make sense. Real complex structures have many ways to go from one place to another. Think of the Pentagon, one of the largest office buildings in the world. It is 0.25 square miles floorspace, 17.5 miles of hallway, yet you can get from any one place to any other pace in the building in a matter of minutes.

But, having the players meander around aimlessly describing hallway after hallway and room after room and running incidental encounter after incidental encounter is booooooring.

On the other hand, if a dungeon is being used for multiple scenarios, I have the following suggestions.

First you can have the layered approach. Each section of the dungeon has only one or two entrances into it that must be reached by moving through other sections. This progression should be linear. Section 1 comes before section 2, etc. But within the sections, the map can be complex but the scope should be small so as to avoid confusion or too much wandering.

The spoke approach is similar, except that one section (the hub) is connected to all other sections. The other sections should not connected. Preferably, the hub is the entrance to the dungeon, but this is not necessary.

Secret doors, in my experience, are a terrible idea unless used VERY sparingly. Drop an incidental secret door somewhere and suddenly you have a party that must stop in every room to take 20 on search checks. There should be no more than 1 or 2 secret doors per dungeon and they should be in "obvious" places. The secret door in the back of the wardrobe in the King's Quarters makes sense, giving the king a way to escape in case of emergency. The secret door leading from the kitchen to the conservatory does not and will spark your players into a plethora of search checks.

More specifically, linear is ok if it's riddled with good encounters and good story. The detour approach (sidetracks) is not so good. It is either not rewarding (great we wasted all that time going down this way, now we have to turn around) or (if rewards are given) rewards players who "comb the desert" looking in every little corner to make sure they found everything (a common trope in video games that should be avoided in RPGs). Branching is the simplest to run and works well for natural cave structures. Works especially well for chase or search and destroy. This can fall to the same problems as sidetracks though, so be careful to make encounters promote the idea that by forging on ahead the players will not only find their goal, but will get there in the least amount of time and be rewarded for such. Complex mazes (circular design) are the most realistic for a manufactured structure. They are great for many types of adventures, but can suffer from player overload if they do not have a good grasp of object visualization (they will get lost or turned in circles). This will only lead to chalk arrows on the wall which, again, slows down the game. This is the hardest to design right. The rooms should be logical and follow a natural progression that gives clues as to their purpose and how they fit into the scheme of things. Players should be able to make a very good guess as to which direction to travel to reach the throne room, for instace.

The Sunless Citadel map looks pretty good. The branch goblin/kobold idea is good, but would probably be better served by choosing which you wanted them to fight (kobolds or goblins) and making that whatever path the players take. The one they don't take could be filled with some sort of reward or "extra" encounter (a single big creature would be best rather than a bunch of little opponents) for those players who decide to be thorough. There are a few too many branches, though except for the crypt one, they appear to be short and insignificant.

The main problems I see with Forge of Fury is that it has secret doors that (seem) pointless and the mix of motifs. It switches from linear to branch to sidetrack to circular with too much frequency. This causes players to avoid getting into a single mindset of how to approach the dungeon.

Keep on the Borderlands is fantastic. My one complaint is there might be a few too many secret doors. If they are presented to the players in such a way that they KNOW they are simply shortcuts, it should be alright. Wonderful use of branching to present the hub concept.

In Search of the Unknown looks ok, but as I mentioned before, a good circular dungeon structure must be backed up by good logical design. It is probably too complex for neophyte players (in terms of dungeon-crawling at least) or those who are horrible at keeping track of objects in their head. May be inappropriate for many parties. Remember that if only one person can handle the map complexity, then that pushes the other players into second class citizen roles, so most of the party has to be ready for something like this.

Hommlet looks to me like it might have too many branches (or at least the branches are too large in comparison to the rest). It also suffers from secret door anxiety. Actually if you removed all the secret door and placed one in front of the crayfish with a big reward it would probably be a great dungeon.

I had intended to finish this, but someone just arrived to visit, so I will have to cut it short.


The Shaman said:
Ola, the Mingol discourses wisely - in particular...Exactly - legends and rumors, fragments of old maps, parley with dungeon denizens, changes in architectural style all lend weight to the character decision-making process.

Of course, the danger here is leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. If you start giving out hints, legends, whatnot about the adventure, we're right back to the idea that every secret room should be found. If the choice is weighted, then the dungeon becomes more or less linear again. If I KNOW that there is a secred door in the back of the mountain, then I'm certainly not going to waltz right into the front gate. If that's true, then the existence of the front gate really doesn't matter.

As far as secret doors goes, well, we run into the idea that adventures should be loaded up with two or three times as much treasure because the PC's will only find half of it. Unfortunately, that assumption shouldn't be made by game designers. If I assume that the party will only find half the treasure and your adventuring party finds 90% of it, then my module has just taken a nice big doo doo in the middle of your campaign.

So many people have commented about having to strip much of the treasure out of those old modules because they were so overloaded. I don't think that they are complaining for nothing.


First Post
This has been a really excellent thread. Melan I like your analysis and it ties into what I like or dislike in an adventure and has made me think about what I'm going to do for some adventures I'm trying to write up.


First Post
Steel_Wind said:
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?

I'm just reading through this thread, so someone may have already addressed this later in the thread, but the OP does use a lot of "In my opinion" statements. I interpret the regular useage to mean he is not trying to preach, but give his opinion.

So, in MY opinion, I think you and Eric missed Melan's intended stance.

Isn't it cool, and irritating, how we can read the same writings and look at the same pictures, but form different impressions/opinions/etc..?

Gold Roger

First Post
Interesting thread.

I think there are two kinds of "dungeons".

One are short dungeons that are done in one or two sessions, are visited with a specific goal in mind or as short diversive sidetracks. For these it doesn't really matter how linear they are, because they will be completely explored in that short time anyway.

The other are the classical mega dungeons. Such dungeons are either part of the campaign in one big dungeon crawl or visited frequently over the curse of one campaign for various reason, each time discovering more.

I think it's that second kind of dungeon that Melans analysis aplies to. Of course from his old-schooler perspective only the second type can really call themself dungeons or even site based adventures. And to a certain degree I agree. After all you don't really explore the first kind, but rather you solve them.

Do both types have a place in a style-balanced campaign- certainly, I know I like to have both in my campaign along with city adventures, wilderness adventures and event based adventures.

I, for my part, aplaude Melans effort, because I know it helped me understand some basic design principles of mega dungeons I was lacking earlier on. And I was really in need of those, seeing how mega dungeons are where I'm weakest at but jet something I desperately want to be part of my campaigns.


This was a very interesting post. While it is, as the author admits, coloured strongly by some of personal opinions, I find the dissection of modules most interesting.

In my current group, dungeon crawls are seen more as a nuisance than a joy: I specifically gave them a large, optional, non-linear Dwarven hold to choose to explore, and they set about it like a chore, so uesd were they to me railroading them through everything. :) I have tried to remedy this with my current dungeon by using the old "get to dungeon bottom then it starts to flood" trick: combined with some other obstacles, this will hopefully make the Dungeon far more memorable to them.

Re: secret doors and the like: for me, at least, if I put something into the Dungeon it's to be found. Pregenerated dungeons which include "hidden extras" are one thing, and can be a bonus to paticularly lucky or smart players, but I simply will not spend an hour on designing encounters, treasures, maps etc that my players may just walk past and never get to. That doesn't mean I throw everything into their hands, per se: but I certainly would keep the time spent on bonus optional extras to a minimum. Either it's something short and sweet (like a secret treasure stash for players on the ball to subtle hints, or a hidden chamber with a mural which confirms a plot suspicion) or it's something big that I fully intend them to perhaps work out later on.

An example of the latter was a dungeon I made with five floors, each of which had the same general map: but which doors were visible, locked, secret etc was different, as was the staircases. Players saw no clue on the first floor or two to the fact a whole western section was cut off: but those who got as far as level three found a door in an unexpected place, and from there found a mirroring location on the second floor. Getting back up to the first floor and searching for the door that matched gave them access to a chunk of the dungeon they'd missed, and with it stairwells to the lower depths. It wasn't guaranteed the players would work it out, of course, but it was designed to be found rather than to be an "elite players only" prize.

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