D&D 5E More Organic Dungeons

Call it organic if you like, I just call is good setting design.

And at session 0 I'm upfront, I tell everyone right at the start that this is a dangerous world their characters live in. Their are others who live here that are more dangerous and deadly than you. Their are more plots and events going on than you can handle, and some of them you can't handle.

Then as reminders when the time comes, and because I'm not going to fully detail the world and expect the players to read novels, I give them info when needed. "As you prepare to set off to journey to the city of Wymwold, you recall the stories, and myths you have heard since you were young. To get to Wymwold you must pass through Merto's Wood, which is known to swallow whole those who wander off the road or try to camp on the road at night. Almost everyone who passes through does so as part of well guarded caravan. After Merto's is the small town of Keep's Cross where you can decide to go the shortest route, through the Blue Mere, or sign on to a river boat going through ..." You get the idea.. going into Merto's is a high level adventure, taking the road alone is a medium level adventure etc.

When it comes to a dungeon, you can do similar things. "Merchant Bob wants to hire you to get his belongings back from the Bergest Gang. You know you heard stories last spring about the city guard company that was ambushed by the gang along the Low Road and lost half a dozen warriors before they could drive the gang off the wagons." If the party can't take on a company of city guard, then they might not want to take Bob's job.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Horwath

Hero
Ask monsters to wear a name tag, with name, CR and current hit point on it!
WOW HEALTH.png
 


First, a little backstory...

I had an experience recently as a player that made me think about a cross-section between verisimilitude and fun. My goblin paladin and the rest of the crew were facing against some kind of animated armor that dropped spider swarms as it got damaged. As more and more swarms popped up, I had the thought, "Surely the adventure wouldn't have encounters we couldn't defeat..."

This made me reflect on what I expect in a session as a player. I realize that I have a subconscious expectation that what we find in a dungeon will be more or less appropriate to our level. Some encounters will be a little more challenging, some a little easier, but overall they should be appropriate challenges to face at whatever level we currently are, or will be reaching soon.

On the one hand, that provides consistent challenges that can generally be overcome. On the other hand, it really does break verisimilitude, and makes me a bit lazy in my combat strategies.

I'm between running campaigns myself, but in my next campaign I want to design more organic dungeons.
Bravo. I applaud the attempt. In my experience, very few DMs do this.
More Organic Dungeons

What I mean by this is that I want my dungeons, and the world in general, to feel more lived-in. If it would make sense for a Hill Giant to live in the area, I think there should be a Hill Giant, no matter the level I expect characters to be when they wander through. At the same time, if the lair of the ancient red dragon would have CR 1/2 Myconids living in it, I want there to be Myconids, even if they can be stepped on by the characters.

I want my players to feel like whatever is lurking behind that dungeon door is there because it makes sense in the world, not necessarily just because of their level!

As a DM, it would be fun to design dungeons and other settings in which the monstrous inhabitants tell a story. For example, if I am designing the Webwoods, a forest of dead trees and web-walled labyrinths, I'm going to be occupying it with giant spiders (CR 1), spider swarms (CR 1/2), and ettercaps (CR 2). But it might make sense that the woods were cursed when a Drow Arachnomancer (CR 13), exiled from the underdark, made her home here. And it would also make sense that the Arachnomancer would have some Drider (CR 6) guards!

So is the Webwood a low-level zone, meant for early adventurers to whom giant spiders at ettercaps are challenges? Is it a mid-level zone, where they will face swarms of giant spiders, spider-swarms, and a couple driders? Or is it a high-level zone, where giant spiders will flee, and the characters will face the Arachnomancer?
This is where it gets very challenging in D&D. For example, a player that flies and has a bow exploring a giant spider filled forest. They can just fly around picking spiders off from above. Sure you could "lay traps" where the spider goes low, and then there are some close near the treetops. But that is the exact opposite of organic. You could have other things go out to get them, like giant bees or a griffon, but again, that is the opposite of organic. That is why there are so many debates about certain abilities like fly. Because to run the fine line of "organic," "verisimilitude," and "D&D style fantasy" is extremely difficult.
Communicating Challenge Levels to the Players

I find a lot of the time the way I design settings communicates a certain level of challenge to the players. For example, characters might start in a Hub Town. The areas near the town are usually filled with low-level encounters, and challenges become more deadly the further characters wander from the Hub.

Or I might drop a big mysterious temple near a village that's supposed to be a high-level danger zone. I will set up guardians or encounters outside the temple that are very challenging, communicating implicitly that whatever is in the temple will be as (or even more) of a challenge.

One of the dangers of more organic dungeons is that the implicit expectations communicated by adventure design get thrown out the window. In other words, a 1st-Level Character wandering through their first dungeon might encounter something super deadly, like a Behir (CR 11), if it makes sense. Players unfamiliar with Behirs might assume that this is an appropriate challenge for their characters, and then watch helplessly as they get restricted and swallowed whole. Yum.

I predict that a lot more communication has to happen in an organic dungeon. If such a dungeon contains extra super deadly encounters, there should be skulls littering the hallways, warnings written in blood on the walls, rumors and legends told in town. Characters with high Passive Perception should be hearing the breathing of a huge beast from many rooms away. There should be a smell of static in the air, or an unnerving lack of other natural predators. By the time the characters encounter something far above their level, they should already have encountered many warning signs.
Just from my experience (and many failures), you are right to think communication is the lynchpin.

Players need to be aware of the level. And you want to tell them "organically." At least that is the best way to I've found. For example, when the mayor says, "We had a high priest and the paladin, both known for slaying an actual dragon and surviving a purple worm attack go in there, and they came out nearly dead." Another way to broach the subject is to have players roll a nature check or something similar. Then there are books they can find that explicitely describe the creature and how powerful it is. Perhaps these books compare the creature's power to the number of soldiers it can kill; ie "The beholder is often a 100-soldier creature, an even then..." Then there are seers and other fortune people/devices that might leave clues about what lies ahead.
Relying on the Exploration Pillar

Perhaps one way to design organic dungeons is to really push exploration as a goal, rather than purely combat. If players think they're expected to kill all the bad guys in a dungeon, they may be confused when encountering something above their level. On the other hand, if the goal is to find the Platinum Medallion of Royalty, and it's hanging on a chain around the neck of a Mummy Lord (CR 15), now things can get interesting. Heat Metal, anyone?

Organic dungeons would also be really good for multiple delves! The players will remember that there's an Adult Black Dragon (CR 14) sitting on a huge pile of treasure in that very first dungeon they explored at 1st Level, and when they've leveled up they can return and have some fun!


So what do you think? Do you design your settings to be organic, or level-appropriate? What are the challenges of creating or using more organic dungeons? What are some of the dangers? Do you think players would enjoy it, or does it breach the contract of player-DM trust?
Relying on the exploration pillar in D&D is some of the best moments I've experienced, both as a DM and player. I find organic things much easier to pull me in as a player. And from a design standpoint, for the last 15 years all I think about is organic. Again, D&D is a hard needle to thread for exploration. First, as a DM, you need to rely on your players to trust you that they can get that medallion without dying. That is not easy to do. Second, you need to have the right group of players. You can't have a Leroy Jenkins, which is a common trope. Third, from my experience, it helps to show the players the first few times. Maybe throw in some wise sage that says, you can use this scroll of heat metal to get the mummy to dop it, then grab it, and get the hell out of there!" Fourth, it pays to write the setting ahead of time - and make it extremely clear. For example: "This passage is thin making you squeeze through granite rock. There is definitely no way a large creature could fit through here." And that leads to number five, you need to set the dungeon or area up, so it makes sense ecologically (my bread and butter) as well as logically. That all takes planning.

Good luck!
 

Despite the funny comment, I think that DM in such organic environment should give more clues about possible threats. it is not railroading to describe a monster « way above your pay grade. »
Of course if the DM lure PCs by hiding CR 15 into mouse like description, players will turn paranoid and avoid any non mandatory fight.
 

PS - Thought I would share one set up with you. A three-tiered dungeon. A few things to know:
  • There are people visiting the vampire at the lower level. (So how do they get by the monsters?)
  • The area the dungeon rests is an old unused graveyard on what is now an old logging road. Few people use the road now.
  • The vampire killed his wife and daughter long ago.
That said, here is level one.
Raven's Shadow - Raven's Crypt - Level 1.jpg
Part B & C are full of zombies. They are very strong and were created by the vampire snatching travelers on the road for many years. The people that do come to see the vampire just use the secret door. The pits stop the zombies from leaving. Lastly, the players can take the long way, and it is a game of don't wake the zombies. Stealth rolls that might mean life or death.

Level Two:
Raven's Shadow - Raven's Crypt - Level 2.jpg

The skull in A has a teleportation ring. If the PCs have the triggering device (from earlier), they can teleport to the vampire. This is what the people who come to see him do. The door leading to Part B has a glyph on it, keeping his daughter, now a banshee trapped. They don't need to go in there, but they can. They can fight her or set her free by solving a riddle she sings about her dolls. Part D & E have narrow hallways. There is a flesh golem the vampire created in E. It cannot get passed the D hallway. He did this so the golem doesn't interfere with his daughter through some mishap.

Level Three:
Raven's Shadow - Raven's Crypt - Level Three.jpg
You have the stairs and teleportation skull that lead to the vampire's crypt. You also have the table where he made the flesh golem and zombies. And a lot of room for fighting "the boss."

I know the maps aren't great, as visual arts is a terrible weakness of mine. But hopefully it showcases for you some logical dungeon design that you can help export to your organic dungeons.

Good luck.
 


I think that this is a preferred outcome outside of intentionally hack and slash campaigns. If a fight can be avoided, it probably should be for anyone that wants to keep living.
Any players that wrong guess a monster treath and start a sure TPK fight will keep living.
They will roll new characters sipping latte and eating pizza, saying « ho we didn't see that coming!! Ha ha ha ». Harsh consequence for players bad decisions is a DM phantasm!
 

Reynard

Legend
Any players that wrong guess a monster treath and start a sure TPK fight will keep living.
They will roll new characters sipping latte and eating pizza, saying « ho we didn't see that coming!! Ha ha ha ». Harsh consequence for players bad decisions is a DM phantasm!
I like it when players conduct their characters something like real people, and even real people that do dangerous stuff for a living want to make it home at night.
 

I like it when players conduct their characters something like real people, and even real people that do dangerous stuff for a living want to make it home at night.
Core assumption for DnD is an heroic game, to role play heroic character.
of course a DM may change the game style and ask to role play cautious and doubtful characters.
In my experience every time a DM has try to push to hard that way, I seen opposite effects : jokes, reckless move, shoot first ask question later attitude.
 

Aldarc

Legend
The proto-D&D dungeons that we find in the Hobbit (i.e., the goblin caves) and Lord of the Rings (i.e,. Moria and Erebor) were lived-in. Likewise, some of the "dungeons" that we see Sword & Sorcery heroes traverse are the ruins of ancient cities. A number had high-level threats that the participants had no hope of beating, but these can be telegraphed in advance.

So I would potentially consider constructing "organic dungeons" with some questions.

  • What civilization originally created this ruin? What function did it serve then?
  • What in the Nine Hells happened to it?
  • Who was there in the interim?
  • Who lives there now? What function does it serve now?
  • Do any factions have connections to or invested interest in the site?
  • What rumors surround the site?

But also how does this dungeon represent an obstacle for the PCs? In the above cases of the goblin caves and Moria in the Misty Mountains, these dungeons were not the objectives. They represented obstacles that were in the way of the PCs objectives. The Fellowship didn't go into Moria to kill a balrog; they went into Moria to get through the mountains.

Another design consideration I would take note of is Metroidvania games. These are games designed with areas/rooms that the character may not be able to access when they start out but can return to later once they get a certain ability, item, or skill.
 
Last edited:

Reynard

Legend
  • What civilization originally created this ruin? What function did it serve then?
  • What in the Nine Hells happened to it?
  • Who lives there now? What function does it serve now?
  • Do any factions have connections to or invested interest in the site?
  • What rumors surround the site?
Also -- who was there in the interim. This is especially important for the kind of dungeon that is full of weird and wondrous things. Exiled sorcerers leaving behind strange experiments. Cults that managed to summon their "god" only to be devoured by it where it still lurks. Etc. A lot of what is considered incongruent in dungeon design can be made "rational" by assuming a long period of occupation by many different entities and factions.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Also -- who was there in the interim. This is especially important for the kind of dungeon that is full of weird and wondrous things. Exiled sorcerers leaving behind strange experiments. Cults that managed to summon their "god" only to be devoured by it where it still lurks. Etc. A lot of what is considered incongruent in dungeon design can be made "rational" by assuming a long period of occupation by many different entities and factions.
Good point. I'll edit that question back in.
 

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top