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D&D General Populating a dungeon

I start with the story. Why does the dungeon exist? Why will the players be going in there? That gives a sense as to what kind of creatures populate the dungeon.

Same with traps and puzzles: why are they there? who made them? how do the dungeon denizens live with them?
 

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Coroc

Hero
I got one player who does require that dungeons make sense, e.g. a trap is there for a purpose to guard something, protect someone. Also the dungeon should not be overtly big with every room containing a bunch of mobs that never move around. (The later works only well if you got undead, outsiders or molds or other mobs who do not require food and drink as denizens).

Some of the best dungeons are made from structures which were something else in the past. Eg. a toppled tower, a sunken palace, attn. cliché :a former mine :). Dungeon walls can be made of plants in a jungle or walls of fire or force or it can be a pipe structure, maybe even filled with water.

If you design a city sewer dungeon for yourself, then try not to meet the trope of the vastly overdimensional sewer. If you got a medieval style city, even in the most dense building style most tenements will probably have no more than 3-5 stories.Eventually large areas are 1 to 2 story huts and houses. You will not have a cemented brickwalled walkable sewer for every subbranche of the canalization for such a city. Most housesare eventually connected with tubes where a rat fits in. Maybe along the main streets there are 2-3 walkable segments and maybe for the outlet into the river / sea there is some section where you can go by boat for a while but that is about it.

Population for the sewer should include rats, slimes molds maybe a few minor undead, maybe othyoughs or so. And then there is the secret entrance to the thieves guild / forbidden cultist shrine / uppermost level of the monster lair / underdark etc.
 

When it comes to puzzles and traps, unless it's a tomb or vault they probably don't make much sense (goblins and kobolds like to set traps around their lairs, but they are usually pretty basic).

So use environmental hazards instead. e.g. scree slope with a risk of an avalanche can substitute for a bolder trap.

Use social puzzles - i.e. some of the denizens might be willing to talk.
 

I always start by thinking about a central theme and interesting encounters that I want to fit into the dungeon. I then design the lay out of the dungeon by thinking about what purpose each room serves. If the dungeon is home to intelligent creatures, then it should have rooms to fulfill their daily needs. Which means such rooms will probably have furniture in them, and maybe creatures going about their daily routine.

If the dungeon has traps, then there has to be a means for intelligent creatures to bypass the traps (unless the dungeon is uninhabited). Most of the time I will create an alternative path in the dungeon that bypasses the traps, or there will be a hidden lever/swith to deactivate the trap. I try to think about how these traps would function in any realistic sense. If the trap emits a jet of flame, then is this magical, fuel based or gas based? If any of the latter, surely there are reservoirs that can be refilled that are near where the trap is installed?

Another interesting thing to think about, is whether there are any unintended paths through the dungeon. Are there walls that have corroded with time? Do some of the intelligent monsters perhaps avoid parts of the dungeon that they have deemed unsafe? Have vermin borrowed through the walls, creating new tunnels? If so, maybe there are vermin opponents in some of the outskirts of the dungeon in addition to its normal population of bad guys. Can the players break down some of the walls with explosives and/or spells to create a shortcut? By giving some of the spaces their own story, this can inform where the monsters are, and where they are absent.

I also try to add obstacles in the dungeon that provide an exploration challenge, and require the use of certain skills. A weak floor may require careful movement, a collapsed stairway may require climbing, and a flooded passage may require swimming. Dungeons are often dilapidated structures, and parts of them may have broken down over time.

In my opinion it is just as important to add alternate paths in a dungeon, as it is to eliminate pointless filler space. I try to condense the dungeon in such a way that every space in it serves a function. If there is nothing to be done in any room/corridor, I either find something to put in it, or I eliminate it all together.
 
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Coroc

Hero
@Imaculata Agree very muc hwith your post but one thing : an empty chamber from time to time is no problem, only if 90% of the dungeon is empty without a reasonable explanation then it gets critical.

Sometimes the almost empty dungeon is also a nice realistic approach. E.g. last session I did use a modded version of the dragon in "five shall be one" using a frost dragon. So there was no mobs, just things (some of the mcursed) explaining to the players that this was once a temple of hextor, until they got to the last room where they suddenly got assaulted by the dragon.

It is all about context. If it is a crypt robbed 10 times, then the only part of it not quite empty might be the 10% of it, hidden behind some secret door, which none of the robbers ever found.
 

@Imaculata Agree very much with your post but one thing : an empty chamber from time to time is no problem, only if 90% of the dungeon is empty without a reasonable explanation then it gets critical.

Sometimes the almost empty dungeon is also a nice realistic approach. E.g. last session I did use a modded version of the dragon in "five shall be one" using a frost dragon. So there was no mobs, just things

Ah, but then you have already put "things" in those rooms, and they are not truly empty, are they?

What I'm talking about is labyrinthine dungeons with dead ends with nothing in them, and lots of long twisting corridors, also with nothing in them. If the only choice that the players must make it whether they go left or right, then that is not a good use of your player's time. That is not to say that choosing to go left or right can't be interesting, but there must be something informing that choice.

For example, I am currently preparing a dungeon for an upcoming session. The very first room in the dungeon has walls covered in stone carvings (something the players can examine), and 3 doors, each with a distinct difference. One door is closed, but there is a faint magical humming coming from the other side. Another door is blocked by coral, and a third is slightly ajar. The players basically have to pick a door, but it is not a choice between 3 identical doors. They have something to inform their choice, and each door takes them to a different part of the dungeon where interesting stuff can be discovered.
 

Coroc

Hero
What I'm talking about is labyrinthine dungeons with dead ends with nothing in them, and lots of long twisting corridors, also with nothing in them. If the only choice that the players must make it whether they go left or right, then that is not a good use of your player's time.

Yep that sort of dungeon is stupid. One of the many reasons why I always (have to!) mod official stuff, the maps also.
 

RhaezDaevan

Explorer
I recommend writing up a table with the types of "room encounters" you'd like the players to experience. Roll against the table to fill out the rooms, then can review what you have and adjust from there. I find it easier than starting from scratch.

Example
1 - Nothing
2 - Trap
3 - Monster
4 - Treasure
5 - Trap + Treasure
6 - Trap + Monster
7 - Monster + Treasure
8 - Monster + Trap + Treasure

Then could have tabes for which trap or monster or treasure are encountered.
 

aco175

Legend
I generally have a theme before I make the dungeon. Right now I'm making a gang hideout and Know that I'm using a lot of thugs and bandits. I have a few other humanoids with a mage and higher level fighter type. It gets boring fighting the same monster all the dungeon, so I will throw in some 'pets' like a drake or owlbear that is captured. I also like to throw in something not expected like a place to hide and take a short rest.

If I make the map first, I like to add elements of the maker to the feel of the place. Maybe a giant statue of a dwarf in an old dwarf mine not overrun by zombies.
 

I generally have a theme before I make the dungeon. Right now I'm making a gang hideout and Know that I'm using a lot of thugs and bandits. I have a few other humanoids with a mage and higher level fighter type. It gets boring fighting the same monster all the dungeon, so I will throw in some 'pets' like a drake or owlbear that is captured. I also like to throw in something not expected like a place to hide and take a short rest.

You highlight something very important here. Monster diversity is a good idea, but a lot of diversity in the encounters can also be created by just adding different variants of the same enemy. If for example the dungeon is a bandit's hideout, then you could have bandits with swords, but also with crossbows, in heavy armor, and a mage. Plus the bandits could have a pet, which could be any kind of nasty beast.

Encounters become much more interesting if there is a priority target. For example, you could have a mage in a library, guarded by two armored thugs. The mage could be a serious threat to the players, so the players may try to target him first. But of course because he is important, the bandits may stay in a tight formation around him. Perhaps they were instructed to do so by their leader.

Whenever there is a priority target, the DM would do well to put this enemy in an area that is harder to reach. You can place bandits with crossbows on a balcony, overlooking a large room. And if the bandits have a crocodile pet (for example), the dungeon may also feature some aquatic terrain where the croc has a distinct advantage. Another thing I like to do, is to add additional objectives to any encounter. Any straight forward battle is made way more interesting if the enemies can ring an alarm bell to call reinforcements. So the players will have to intercept a guard running for the bell.
 

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