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The Lost Art of Dungeon-Crawling

There is a certain type of adventure that in recent years seems to have fallen out of popularity: dungeons.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

"I Look Up!"

The release of several old D&D modules got me looking at some of these old original adventures, and they are quite eye-opening on the subject of dungeon design. These are the first games of D&D we played and while some are a little dated, it's easy to see why they kept us playing. While almost everything in those adventures was dangerous, there was magic and mystery in the rooms you found. There were rooms with strange orbs suspended from the ceiling; mysterious indoor gardens full of medicinal plants, poison and monsters; ghostly feasts that share a tragic history; and mysterious keys guarded with fiendish traps.

I think I know why dungeons fell out of vogue. Way back in the early 80s we discovered city adventuring. Modules then became quests or investigations across a cityscape full of NPCs and role-play opportunities with all manner of details and cultures. This new way of gaming outside a maze opened a whole new sandbox. This change in adventure design opened new vistas for adventurers, but crowded out the traditional dungeon crawl as a result.

A Return to Form

Luckily, in recent years we have seen a more interesting return to dungeons. More designers are coming back to them and trying to break the myth. Mork Borg has its share and a other ‘old school’ games have sought to blow the dust off the idea of raiding underground facilities. Its fun to dive into these lairs once again, and a simple diversion from what has become the usual kind of game. While I’m certainly more on the side of narrative play and character interaction, sometimes it is nice to know that you just need to pick a door rather than work out the villain’s plot and craft an elegant plan (that one of the players may just ignore anyway).

If you are thinking of crafting a dungeon of your own, here's a few pointers.

Give the Place A Reason

Whether it is an old ruin or an underground laboratory, make sure the dungeon has a reason to exist and some sort of history. A hole in the ground isn’t very interesting so give it a back-story, even just a small one. It might be a tomb, an old ruin creatures have taken over or a lab where magic went wrong. It need not be especially clever, just as long as you can place it in your setting.

A Dungeon Need Not Be an Actual Dungeon

What you are creating is a place full of rooms linked with doors and corridors, so it need not be underground. A house or a castle is basically the same, as is a sky city, large airship, underwater citadel or even a walled in town (put a roof on real world Venice and you have an epic dungeon).

Don’t Construct It with Only One Path

When you are making a lot of cool stuff it is very tempting to make sure none of it gets missed. But you should avoid the temptation for having only one path through the dungeon that takes in every room. If the player characters miss out rooms 34-48, you can use them in the next adventure. Nothing is wasted. But if you insist they follow one path you are ruining the fun of exploring a dungeon and taking away the agency of choice. If you offer several different paths, when they enter the room of certain death you can point out with a clear conscience that they didn’t have to open the black door with the skull on the front.

Corridors Are Rooms Too

Don’t reserve encounters just for rooms. They can happen anywhere in the dungeon, in corridors, on stairwells; anywhere the player characters don’t expect one.

Add Some Mystery Not Just Monsters

While you will need a few monsters to fight to gain some treasure, put in traps and just weird stuff too. Not everything need be deadly, just something weird to make the player characters think can be fun too, if only to cross a room (the Crystal Maze will be a big help here). With magic in the world you can put some very odd places in a dungeon. Just imagine something that would look strange and enticing when they open the door and then figure out what it does. It might be a room full of glass spheres, a garden with odd looking plants, a table set for a feast with only statues as guests. The weirder the room the more the player characters will be intrigued.

Make Sure There Are A Variety of Encounters

This relates to the above; don’t rely on one sort of encounter. Make sure you have a mixture of traps, monsters, weird rooms and role play encounters. Try to avoid having the same type of room twice in a row if you can.

Don’t Skimp on the Role-Play

Even dragons might chat; just because it is a dungeon doesn't mean there are opportunities to role play. Trapped creatures, intelligent monsters under a curse or a contract and even the odd guard might be talked to as easily as fought. You can let the player character make this decision, by who they choose to attack on sight. But remind them that they can talk their way out of situations as well.

Make Every Door Worth Opening

If you do the job right, each door the player characters come across will fill them with a mixture of fear and anticipation. What lies beyond this door, a trap, a fearful death, untold riches or wild magic? If a room or encounter doesn’t’ feel that interesting to you, cut it from your dungeon. Maybe consider it a little and use it later on when you’ve made it work better. A dungeon need not be a sprawl, and a shorter one has the advantage of potentially allowing the player characters to escape and try another one some other day.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

wicked cool

Adventurer
Call me crazy but I think they should model dungeons after Skyrim dungeons

Skyrim dungeons are 3-4 things
1 - a tomb with a theme. Usually Draugr but sometimes something takes out the draugr and makes it a layer
2 -a mine
3-a dwarven/Dwemer abandoned city
4-a dug out bunker type area under a building

Most are short but at times deadly and have a theme. days of the 100 room dungeons filled with dragons mixed in with all sorts of creatures should be done away with

the starter box adventure dungeons work because they are smaller crawls
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
Something not mentioned that old-games also do is not assume that the creatures in the dungeon are there for PCs to fight. When the PCs encounter them, you make a reaction roll to determine how it reacts. In B/X for example, creatures only attack immediately when you roll a 2 on 2d6. When creatures aren’t automatically hostile, PCs can interact with them and negotiate with them. If you put multiple factions in the dungeon, PCs can scheme with them or manipulate them against each other. It adds another dimension to play beyond just having a bunch of creatures standing around in rooms (or hallways or wherever) waiting for the PCs to kick in the door and kill them for their treasure.

You can take this a step further with tools like adversary rosters, which decouple creature listings from the key. If the party gets into a loud fight, you can look at your roster, see who is nearby, and have them respond to the commotion. You can see an example of this in the adventures Necrotic Gnome publishes for Old-School Essentials, which labels the creatures on the map. As the PCs navigate through the dungeon, you can see where creatures are in relation to them and have them respond as appropriate depending on what the PCs do. That doesn’t even have to mean combat if you’re using reaction rolls. The kobolds in the room over might just be curious, and now the PCs have an opportunity to make new friends.
 

tmanbeaubien

Explorer
Call me crazy but I think they should model dungeons after Skyrim dungeons

Skyrim dungeons are 3-4 things
1 - a tomb with a theme. Usually Draugr but sometimes something takes out the draugr and makes it a layer
2 -a mine
3-a dwarven/Dwemer abandoned city
4-a dug out bunker type area under a building

Most are short but at times deadly and have a theme. days of the 100 room dungeons filled with dragons mixed in with all sorts of creatures should be done away with

the starter box adventure dungeons work because they are smaller crawls
For this kind of dungeon, there's no requirement that the PCs explore the whole thing now or ever. It's kind of a variation on a city if it is done well. You might just visit the top layer for some reason, get what you need and leave. But the knowledge that there's more levels, more stuff, etc might call the PCs back if they are interested.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I think there are a couple of reasons why dungeons have fallen out of favor.

First, the latest version of the game isn't the greatest at supporting this type of play. It's okay, but I think it requires a bit of hacking to really make it shine in dungeon delving.

But more importantly, I've noticed a shift in what is presented that seems to be centered around prep time. A fully-stocked adventure location takes more time to prepare than just winging it with city or overland encounters or shorter, linear plot-based adventures. It's simply easier to prep the latter, so more people are likely to do those kinds of adventures than a dungeon of more than 5 rooms or even a megadungeon.
 


GMMichael

Guide of Modos
. . .While almost everything in those adventures was dangerous, there was magic and mystery in the rooms you found. There were rooms with strange orbs suspended from the ceiling; mysterious indoor gardens full of medicinal plants, poison and monsters; ghostly feasts that share a tragic history; and mysterious keys guarded with fiendish traps. . .

. . . Way back in the early 80s we discovered city adventuring. . .
For anyone wanting an online example, you can get orbs, gardens, and traps here: The Wonderful World of Eamon

Back in the early 80s, I discovered He-Man. That was full of role-play opportunities, so I guess I was "back" to dungeon adventuring when Hero Quest hit the market in the late 80s.

Call me crazy but I think they should model dungeons after Skyrim dungeons
You're crazy. Skyrim dungeons are too well-lit, and they typically comprise one path that conveniently loops around to the entrance. If I were a player in a campaign featuring Skyrim dungeons, I'd be a dwarf engineer, and spend my time restoring the dungeons to a respectable, interest-fostering state.
 

wicked cool

Adventurer
For anyone wanting an online example, you can get orbs, gardens, and traps here: The Wonderful World of Eamon

Back in the early 80s, I discovered He-Man. That was full of role-play opportunities, so I guess I was "back" to dungeon adventuring when Hero Quest hit the market in the late 80s.


You're crazy. Skyrim dungeons are too well-lit, and they typically comprise one path that conveniently loops around to the entrance. If I were a player in a campaign featuring Skyrim dungeons, I'd be a dwarf engineer, and spend my time restoring the dungeons to a respectable, interest-fostering state.
well they work in the starter box adventures (maybe less torches lol) but they serve a purpose (to keep draugr in). Same thing goes for dungeons-they should have a purpose not just the cave on the side of the mountatin turns into this elaborate complex filled with all sorts of critters
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Something not mentioned that old-games also do is not assume that the creatures in the dungeon are there for PCs to fight. When the PCs encounter them, you make a reaction roll to determine how it reacts. In B/X for example, creatures only attack immediately when you roll a 2 on 2d6. When creatures aren’t automatically hostile, PCs can interact with them and negotiate with them. If you put multiple factions in the dungeon, PCs can scheme with them or manipulate them against each other. It adds another dimension to play beyond just having a bunch of creatures standing around in rooms (or hallways or wherever) waiting for the PCs to kick in the door and kill them for their treasure.

You can take this a step further with tools like adversary rosters, which decouple creature listings from the key. If the party gets into a loud fight, you can look at your roster, see who is nearby, and have them respond to the commotion. You can see an example of this in the adventures Necrotic Gnome publishes for Old-School Essentials, which labels the creatures on the map. As the PCs navigate through the dungeon, you can see where creatures are in relation to them and have them respond as appropriate depending on what the PCs do. That doesn’t even have to mean combat if you’re using reaction rolls. The kobolds in the room over might just be curious, and now the PCs have an opportunity to make new friends.
I think this is the thing.

Dungeoncrawls that are dynamic with varying encounters and possibilities are infinitely more interesting than the kick in the door, kill all the things, repeat variety. Interesting dungeoncrawls almost require a more combat as war, lots of flasks of oil, and 10’ poles approach. Does 5E even have the procedures for a dungeoncrawl?
 

Stormonu

Legend
Dungeons never left my games, but I think the real change has been that megadungeon or neverending series of dungeons (“world of dungeons”) where trekking to and back from town is a mere scene transition is pretty much a thing of the past.

Still, it never hurts to have a dungeon make sense - both from its occupants to its form and function, even if it no longer fulfills the original reason it was built for.

One of the biggest mistakes I STILL see in dungeon design is “How did they even get in here?” - when placing occupants into your dungeon, take a moment to consider how they get into and out of the area they’re in. For example, if the BBEG is on the other side of a corridor with a spiked pit trap, how does get back to his sleeping/eating/planning quarters without falling afoul of his own trap? For that matter, how do his minions get to him to advise him on the state of his plans for world domination? How can he even go and check for himself?
 


Reynard

Legend
Alternate Take:

Step 1: Decide what the dungeon was back when it was built and draw the map based on that.
Step 2: Decide what powers have come and gone in the intervening years/centuries/millenia/epochs and add traps, tricks, troubles and weirdness based on that.
Step 3: Decide separately who is in the dungeon now and to what end, and stock creatures based on that.
Step 4: Decide why the PCs are there and motivate their exploration based on that.

Now you have a dynamic environment with a history, some weirdness and some ties to the current setting, as well as a reason (or reasons) for the PCs to explore it. And if by chance you are running a sandbox and the PCs miss the dungeon, you don't have to scrap all the work. Just add the "current occupants" to the historical list and add the dungeon to the next campaign sandbox.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
Make every room be useful is not needed. Having a few dead rooms with nothing of interest is okay as it can ratchet up the tension if used properly. Say there are four small rooms that are symmetrical and one out of the four has a trap in it! It is a good way to catch the party off guard.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Something I like about "old dungeon" style adventures, is that their design flaws or oversights are actually spaces for my own designs and motivations for how I am using the module or whatever.

For example, in N1 - Against the Cult of the Reptile God in the swamp lair dungeon near the end of the module, there is jus ta harpy in a big room, with no explanation how she got there or what her relationship to the big bad might be. . . I was able to make the harpy a cursed woman with a link to an earlier adventure I ran and changed that part of the dungeon to a tunnel leading to an old temple sunken into the swamp, and partially open to the sky, allowing the harpy to come and go, and providing the PCs with a second and more distant way in and out of the dungeon (if for example they need to take a rest). The connection to the previous adventure also provided a means of circumventing the harpy fight by breaking her curse and getting some info from her.

Lastly, the presence of the harpy lair became something that the big bad tolerated for now as a way to defend that way in and out of the dungeon and a place to send prisoners to be charmed and eaten - but also explains why the minions avoid that area of the dungeon.
 


transmission89

Adventurer
Maybe the mainstream has dropped them (not helped by the woeful lack of dungeon crawl proceduresbut they are alive and well, lots of modern examples from the small (like hole in the oak, to the large (barrow maze, stonehell etc).

Every room should have a purpose: This includes empty rooms, as resting spots. Empty rooms are also never actually empty (they need dungeon decor).

keep track of time and resources, the ticking clock with the threat of wandering monsters builds tension into the exploration.

Old modules had long windy corridors. Why? To help break line of sight when fleeing or planning ambushes.

Claims of them being boring hack and slash fests misunderstand how they worked with the classic rules (monster reactions, not every combat was or should’ve been combat). Nor were they just ever meant to be random loot tables on a map...

Dungeons need to make sense. Do they? They can represent the mythic underworld, dreamy logic and bizarre encounters abound.

There needs to be interaction, things that can be poked and prodded that might change the environment or effect the characters.

They are easier to prep for as they exist in a constrained environment, allowing a more controlled sandbox environment for the players. Though they should never be linear.

Also, Jacquay that dungeon! Stick a river in the middle kind of thing. The 5e starter dungeon had this even if the accompanying adventure was mediocre.
 
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TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
Call me crazy but I think they should model dungeons after Skyrim dungeons

Skyrim dungeons are 3-4 things
1 - a tomb with a theme. Usually Draugr but sometimes something takes out the draugr and makes it a layer
2 -a mine
3-a dwarven/Dwemer abandoned city
4-a dug out bunker type area under a building

Most are short but at times deadly and have a theme. days of the 100 room dungeons filled with dragons mixed in with all sorts of creatures should be done away with

the starter box adventure dungeons work because they are smaller crawls
I actually think the opposite!

The amount of things you can do in Skyrim in a set amount of time is much higher than in D&D. In 30 minutes, you can probably go through at least one or two of these dungeons. In D&D, just by the nature of the game, it would at least take you an hour or two. You don't have the same capacity for a quantity of content. This is also why, in my opinion, killing the same enemy a hundred time to level up works in a video game but works a bit poorly in a game like D&D. It takes too much time (it's also a bit boring).

So if your time is limited, every dungeon should be unique, memorable and excite the players by stimulating their creativity and agency. Skyrim dungeons are the opposite. They're bite-sized, they're quite generic and the loot in them is more interesting than the dungeons themselves.

I will agree that short and very thematic are definitely a good approach! I like a two-three rooms dungeon in Dungeons & Dragons. Takes less than an hour and the players can be on their way.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
Does 5E even have the procedures for a dungeoncrawl?
Not in the traditional sense, but 5e is pretty easy to hack. Pathfinder 2e has exploration mode, which comes close, but it lacks a few things I consider important (reaction rolls, morale). PF2’s chase subsystem can be used to handle retreats, but it’s not designed specifically for that purpose.

One of the biggest mistakes I STILL see in dungeon design is “How did they even get in here?” - when placing occupants into your dungeon, take a moment to consider how they get into and out of the area they’re in. For example, if the BBEG is on the other side of a corridor with a spiked pit trap, how does get back to his sleeping/eating/planning quarters without falling afoul of his own trap? For that matter, how do his minions get to him to advise him on the state of his plans for world domination? How can he even go and check for himself?
There is a portcullis trap in a dungeon my PCs have been exploring. I figured the occupants would want to go in and out through that passage, so I put a stick with a hook nearby they could use to prop the trap open while they passed. When my PCs found it, they wouldn’t touch it. They figured it had to be cursed or dangerous in some way. 🙃
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
What is rule format for "the procedures for a dungeon crawl?" (aside from morale, I guess which I only ever used briefly and discarded for just my sense of what kind of behavior makes sense based on what I know about the creatures and context and never seemed unique to dungeon-delving to me)

I have played every edition of D&D at least once and am having trouble remembering the rules for these "procedures." Exploring dungeons have basically remained the same in my games except for the kinds of dice you roll and what they might be called for the equivalent of perception check or looking for secret doors, etc. . .
 

transmission89

Adventurer
What is rule format for "the procedures for a dungeon crawl?" (aside from morale, I guess which I only ever used briefly and discarded for just my sense of what kind of behavior makes sense based on what I know about the creatures and context and never seemed unique to dungeon-delving to me)

I have played every edition of D&D at least once and am having trouble remembering the rules for these "procedures." Exploring dungeons have basically remained the same in my games except for the kinds of dice you roll and what they might be called for the equivalent of perception check or looking for secret doors, etc. . .
B/X breaks the sequence down. A turn last 10 minutes. Torches last an hour. Different actions take a turn (such as move your movement rate, mapping the room, searching for secret doors). Every 2 turns (more or less depending on dungeon) make an wandering encounter check
 

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