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.

not-dead-3525140_960_720.jpg

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.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

log in or register to remove this ad

Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

Schmoe

Adventurer
If dungeon delving is a lost art, someone forgot to tell me. I've been running players through dungeons pretty much non-stop for the last few years. I have one group that I'm running through the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. They are just about to tackle the Crater Ridge Mines (a massive dungeon), after spending the last 4-5 months exploring the moathouse outside of Hommlet. I have another group that has been exploring the Tomb of Abysthor after earlier forays into Quasqueton (In Search of the Unknown).

For advice on creating dungeons, one of the best books I've seen was the 2e Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide. I also love the blog The Alexandrian. Justin Alexander has some excellent articles on dungeon-based adventures.

I will say that making entertaining dungeons can be difficult, and it often comes down to the denizens themselves. For example, in Quasqueton, even though the dungeon is completely bare bones with absolutely no justification for any of the inhabitants, we had some of the most fun because of the role-playing. Just one simple example was the orc who surrendered and joined the party after they killed his partner, because he "didn't like that smelly orc anyway, he was always making fun of me and beating me up." That's definitely not in the module, and I just had to figure out what to do with 2 orcs in an otherwise empty room.

By contrast, the middle part of the Tomb of Abysthor has a ton of unintelligent or undead foes, and I'm starting to realize that the lack of RP engagement is becoming a drag. In fact, this thread has inspired me to mix it up a bit.

So, yeah, dungeons. I love 'em.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

cbwjm

Seb-wejem
Talking about dungeons, I have two that I'm developing for my current game. One, the PCs might visit, another they will visit.

The first dungeon that the players might enter is an ancient elemental ritual complex where humans were turned into the first genasi using an orb of elemental power to change them into enhanced foot soldiers for the elemental war from my settings mythic past. This dungeon has areas (mini dungeons) attuned to the 4 prime elements of air, earth, fire, and water each of which is connected to a central chamber where the transformations took place (also probably going to be some connections between areas which show the para-elemental energies where the two elements mix). What I like about this dungeon, is it showcases a little bit of the history of my world as in the central chamber there are wall engravings showing elementals herding captive humans into a central chamber, another scene shows an elemental holding the orb of power aloft, and the final scene shows genasi where humans once stood. I don't require players to read up on the history of my world, but I'm more than willing to show it to them in their adventures.

The second dungeon I like because it isn't what you'd think of as a dungeon, because it's a forest, albeit it is bounded by a great dome of thorns that is near impossible to get through. I'm setting it up essentially like a dungeon, forest clearings take the place of rooms, trails are corridors. The only real difference is, the players can ignore the trails and move through the "walls" of this dungeon, all the while the players will be hunted by a corrupted unicorn which should be fun.
 


Well and the people who write bad adventures.

Which I guess is the DMs fault for running them and not modifying them, but my point is many dungeon adventures are written with static situations.
Yes, heaven forfend a DM must do more than simply read and blindly carry out what is in an adventure without thought.

An Adventure is simply the barest script written in a generic way as the writer cannot account for individual party variation or every conceivable action.

They can tell you what’s in a room, but it’s down to the DM to breathe life into his NPCs and dungeon. So no, I wouldn’t give the DM a pass here.

Now certainly, there could be an argument made that it is incumbent on the adventure to make all the necessary information as accessible as possible to make it easier for our DMs.

Which incidentally, is why I take a dim view on most 5e adventures. I find the huge hard backs with key details buried in paragraphs far too much work to parse. The amount of work I’d have to put in to pull it off? I could just make my own adventure and have a better handle on it mentally. Give me those packed, slim 32 page modules any day. Much easier to keep abreast of things.
 

pming

Legend
...whispers from the shadows distracts the figure hunched over curled parchments, quill pens, and various coloured ink pots. Old musty tome's, piled high, teeter at the edges of the old oak table, dark with age. The figure, scribbling notes and diagrams feverishly, with an occasional pause, a wry smile, then more scribbling, mutters to himself. His ample beard getting caught in the movements of the quill distracts him more. With an annoyed grunt he removes said quill from his hirsute countenance and grabs at his face to smooth away the frazzled hairs. It is at this moment he sits back and ponders the intricately designed dungeon map at hand, one of hundreds within reach or tucked under books, skulls or flagons of questionable liquids. It is this moment he makes out the murmuring of...others... Others speaking of heretical views about the "Lost Art of Dungeon Crawling"... The figure, an old man of indeterminable age, looks up and speaks...
..
"Er... wut? Who says?"

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

If dungeon delving is a lost art, someone forgot to tell me. I've been running players through dungeons pretty much non-stop for the last few years. I have one group that I'm running through the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. They are just about to tackle the Crater Ridge Mines (a massive dungeon), after spending the last 4-5 months exploring the moathouse outside of Hommlet. I have another group that has been exploring the Tomb of Abysthor after earlier forays into Quasqueton (In Search of the Unknown).

For advice on creating dungeons, one of the best books I've seen was the 2e Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide. I also love the blog The Alexandrian. Justin Alexander has some excellent articles on dungeon-based adventures.

I will say that making entertaining dungeons can be difficult, and it often comes down to the denizens themselves. For example, in Quasqueton, even though the dungeon is completely bare bones with absolutely no justification for any of the inhabitants, we had some of the most fun because of the role-playing. Just one simple example was the orc who surrendered and joined the party after they killed his partner, because he "didn't like that smelly orc anyway, he was always making fun of me and beating me up." That's definitely not in the module, and I just had to figure out what to do with 2 orcs in an otherwise empty room.

By contrast, the middle part of the Tomb of Abysthor has a ton of unintelligent or undead foes, and I'm starting to realize that the lack of RP engagement is becoming a drag. In fact, this thread has inspired me to mix it up a bit.

So, yeah, dungeons. I love 'em.

See, I was tempted earlier to mention Quasqueton from B1 in search of the unknown. I think anyone who is curious about old school dungeon crawls should read this module as I feel it is the archetypal dungeon crawl. It has everything a good dungeon should have.

Note, it’s not perfect, it does have issues, but it was designed in such a way that it has the things I labelled earlier as good practice. It has variety, it incorporates exploration , it has space, it has interactivity, environmental story telling etc...
 


What is a linear dungeon to people? Is Moria a linear dungeon as it is presented in LotR? After all, there is just the main entrance and the back entrance, and maybe a couple of small secret ways in and out. The Fellowship had the goal of getting from one entrance to the other, regardless of how immensely huge the interior is. Is that linear because they had a goal and a limited amount of time to get through, which prevented them from doing any side exploration?

But on the main topic, I hope that dungeons that are more like mazes, and which have no theme, with just a bunch of random things in random rooms, and random monsters with no reason to be there or ability to even get out of their rooms, die and never come back. Those were alright when I was still a teen and first playing AD&D in the 80's, but I, and most people I played with, matured past that kind of adventure as we got older. We want the dungeons to make sense and have an actual purpose for whoever, or whatever, controls them. Now, this is about small to medium-sized dungeons. Mega-dungeons are a unique animal, in that entire sections or levels can have their own theme and purpose and just be loosely connected to the overall location.
 


What is a linear dungeon to people? Is Moria a linear dungeon as it is presented in LotR? After all, there is just the main entrance and the back entrance, and maybe a couple of small secret ways in and out. The Fellowship had the goal of getting from one entrance to the other, regardless of how immensely huge the interior is. Is that linear because they had a goal and a limited amount of time to get through, which prevented them from doing any side exploration?

But on the main topic, I hope that dungeons that are more like mazes, and which have no theme, with just a bunch of random things in random rooms, and random monsters with no reason to be there or ability to even get out of their rooms, die and never come back. Those were alright when I was still a teen and first playing AD&D in the 80's, but I, and most people I played with, matured past that kind of adventure as we got older. We want the dungeons to make sense and have an actual purpose for whoever, or whatever, controls them. Now, this is about small to medium-sized dungeons. Mega-dungeons are a unique animal, in that entire sections or levels can have their own theme and purpose and just be loosely connected to the overall location.

This is a misunderstanding of Moria. It’s certainly not a linear dungeon, it’s huge! The party’s objective was to just sneak through it. That doesn’t make it linear, that is just a goal the party chose. They could’ve chosen to find the treasure vault for example.
Their time was only initially limited by the campaign clock of getting the ring to mount doom. But then Pippin failed his stealth check. That flight from Moria that prevented exploration was a party experiencing consequences of a fail condition.

I love the notion that one can “mature” past adventures with whimsy and the mythical underworld, and only accept solid verisimilitude. It’s like that old attitude in the 80s where teens would only play AD&D because they were ”too mature” for classic which is a kids game.

Just like the kids I teach now will only play GTA because mario kart is a “kid’s game”....
 

Remove ads

Latest threads

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top