D&D General Preferred way of running large dungeon crawls?


Over the years I have tried just about every method under the sun for running large dungeon crawls:
VTT, large printed 1" grid maps, dungeon tiles, players mapping on graph paper, completely theatre of the mind, etc.

I think I've discovered I'm happiest a large stack of dry-erase tiles with lots of furniture - think HeroQuest. I blot small dots around the grid to help me draw quickly whenever they enter a new room. I found that there is just something really fun watching them move miniatures around "the maze" rather than just describing it.

If tiles and miniatures aren't available, my fallback is to print out the dungeon and cut out all the rooms. As they explore, I'll hand them the room they're in and let them use a glue-stick to assemble the map.

Anyways, was really curious how others handled "crawls". Specially, how to make all those long and twisty hallways fun?

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Going through the Doomvault with kids right now. Started off with drawn grid maps (couple of wet erase and few dry erase) for first half dozen or so rooms. As I saw that they were mopping the floor for majority of fights, and a few convincing “dungeon inspectors” bluffs, now we are doing theater of the mind for MOST rooms. But for the “boss” of each area, or complex due to number of combatants, I am pulling out the warlock tiles and decorations. They are excited to see them out and my wife and I just find them really cool no matter what.

I wish we had a permanent vs eating table setup to basically keep the titles always going, but really can only do room (and outside hallways if needed) at a time. We bought all these years ago, and very glad to be able to use them finally. Just been sitting in boxes way too long. They are so cool.


Pre-VTT days I'd use TotM with a dry erase board for combat mapping or details. The layout map I usually leave to the player's discretion, as I've found most modern gamers don't bother with one.


Mechanically: I use a variety of techniques for play at the table. I'll predraw some dungeons on graph paper, use Chessex to draw some at the table, and build the more interesting options out of Dwarven Forge and other terrain pieces. I toss on my dungeon dressing pieces as appropriate. I also use theater of the mind for many combats with a solo monster or for combats that are more about the information they convey than they are for the challenge of the combat.

Keeping it interesting: A dungeon delve is not an adventure type, it is an adventure setting. The adventure is the reason why the PCs are there, and whatever story sits behind the dungeon.

My favorite dungeon crawl is a Haunted Mansion with the ruins of an extensive ancient temple beneath it. It is tied to the transitive planes, so PCs will find themselves passing back and forth from the Prime to the Shadowfell, the Feywild and the Ethereal. There are ~100 locations designed for the delve, but we reuse them in each of the planes. The tail end of the story, once the PCs have teleportation and planar travel access, takes the PCs to other planes for brief stints, but the final battle (meant for 20th level PCs) takes place in the Temple.

Key features:

Noise: I take into account proximity and sound. If you're not careful, you can bring down a horde upon your head. This doesn't mean that you need to stealth all the time, but you need to be smart.

Time: Everything is on a clock. Things change if the PCs are not diligent and trying to push forward. They can get to places where things stabilize and the clock effectively allows for them to take a break - but not entirely. There is always an incentive to push onward earlier and faster to make sure they don't miss out on anything.

Story: The story of the place is the most important part of it. While I strive to make every encounter interesting and important, I want the players to come back because they care about the mystery of the manor.

Challenge: I don't put all deadly and hard encounters in the dungeon. There are 'easier' challenges in terms of CR, but when I have those encounters in the setting, the risk of failure is not about survival - it is about preventing something, finding something, protecting something, etc... The PCs are not at risk of death, but they can feel the impact of failure.

Ravenloft: The Shadowfell version is a Ravenloft domain, so getting in and out is a challenge. The ways out are few and far between - and seal themselves up after you use them once. However, there is information there that can only be discovered there. While in the Shadowfell, the PCs see the place as it was thousands of years ago during a great calamity. The day resets like in Groundhog Day - but each time there is a slight twist. There is a 'Time Stories' esque (if you know the board game) element to getting out. When players are in the Shadowfell domain, I set up a Jenga tower for each player. When they do something significant, they have to pull from the tower. If the tower falls, something very bad happens...

Feywild: The Feywild version shows them the natural caverns that existed before the Temple was built into them. It is the home of an Archfey trickster that loves company and wants the PCs to join his eternal party. More over, he wants to escape the Feywild and bring his party to the Prime. One major concern they have to worry about is the risk that a day spent here could be a year, which is a huge problem given the clocks of the dungeon. And I do not give them an easy out that gives them the ability to control time - they have techniques to handle a several year change in the timeline, but it isn't easy. Memory Loss for the time spent there is also an issue.

Ethereal: In my setting, this is a Transitive Plane between the Prime and the Far Realm. It is a conduit for tortured spirits lost to the Elder Gods, of supernatural and aberration threats, and other nightmares. As soon as the PCs arrive for the first time I tell them to roll 4d6 in my dice tower so that only I can see the results. This is used to generate their sanity score, a 7th attribute. When PCs roll a Sanity Save they can often use either their sanity ability score, or one other specified for the situation. The trick is: They do not know what their sanity score is. Their choice impacts whether they are trying to embrace and master the horror, or resist and fight the horror. When PCs fail a sanity save, their sanity score decreases by 1: Permanently. It can't be restored by any Divine, Arcane or Nature magics. If they lose their last point of sanity, they succumb and the PC gives into the horror and becomes an NPC under my control. They may go mad, they may become enticed by the promises of an Elder God, they may physically change into an aberration.

Nearby Civilization: There is a town that exists just down the hill. The town doesn't have much in the eway of resources at the start, but the PCs can rescue some people that will set up shop there and begin to craft some magic items, potions, etc... for the PCs as a thank you for their rescue. There is a major city that is a week away. The PCs can travel there to get larger purchases - but there are clocks on everything in the dungeon, so that type of travel comes with a cost. There is also a room accessible around levels 7 to 9 with portals that connect to the 4 great marketplaces of the universe: (The City of Brass in the Elemental Plane, the City of Iron in Dis (Hell), the City of Gold (in the Heavens), and my Sigil (which for my games is in the Astral Plane)).

Big Bad: The Big Bad is felt from the very first session. The PCs learn who it is, why it is, and what it is trtying to do early on. From that point on, it is lurking in the background, just out of sight, watching the PCs and waiting for a chance to taste them. It is a blast to play.


Anyways, was really curious how others handled "crawls". Specially, how to make all those long and twisty hallways fun?
This is a really brilliant question. Rooms easily become the source of excitement, and hallways become connective tissue (barring the occasional mid-hall trap, wandering encounter, or combat spilling into the halls).

I don't have one answer, rather I have multiple answers...
  • When I ran a dwarven dungeon recently, the hallways were a way to build suspense/foreshadow & to hint at the movements of dwarven guards. I used Owlbear Rodeo and tightly controlled fog of war to show the moving guards & careful narrative descriptions for the suspense/foreshadowing.
  • When I ran Tomb of the Nine Gods, there were actually a fair number of trapped hallways. I used an 11x17 laminated map painted with DIY scratch-off paint, since it was a trap-heavy dungeon where the focus was getting all the skeleton keys and then getting to the bottom.
  • When I ran a dungeon under the carcass of a black dracolich, I used the time pressure of rains flooding the dungeon and the spirit of the dracolich warning they had X amount of time until it would destroy them (ie. dripping acid into the dungeon). So the twisting passages were just in the background at first, but then they became an obstacle when the PCs were feeling the time pressure in the second half.
  • When I ran Dragon Mountain (kobold dungeon), the hallways were part of an ongoing guerilla tactics cat-and-mouse game the PCs engaged in with the kobold defenders. While 3/4 or 4/5 of the time the hallways were just hallways lacking much of anything, those few instances where the cramped hall became the site of a kobold ambush provided just enough tension to keep the players on guard.


We tend to use the 4e printed maps that came with modules and the 3e Dungeon Tiles which we have a few collections of. I assemble the map as the players go deeper, but eventually I need to get rid of the old encounters to make room on the table or if I need the tiles to build the new room out of. We mostly gave up on having players draw the map while exploring. I guess on a large delve, I could have them check to see if they get lost or such, but we mostly handwave this.

I recently found Christmas wrapping paper as a way to draw maps. The inside of the paper has 1" squares inside. Not sure why I never figured it out before, but I bought a roll after last Christmas at 90% off and was able to make some of the larger encounters from the Against the Giants caverns and it is nice to have them made beforehand. I thought about making a larger map like a scroll and have new encounters roll out as the old ones roll up behind the PCs. I think this is also something another company has as their thing.

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