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

R_J_K75

Legend
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.
This is exactly how I feel and why I dont run the large WotC hardback adventures. Its too much information crammed into a poor format , which is a 1 giant book. Id much prefer a return to boxed sets and smaller modules.
 

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cbwjm

Seb-wejem
Room A - Room B - Room C - Room D - Room E, all in a row. Eg the Skyrim dungeons, or the 4e Dungeon Delve dungeons.
Pretty much this for linear dungeons. Non-linear means going into room A, having the option to go to room B or room C, maybe moving on to room E and then back to room D or totally ignoring room D and moving towards the entrance.
 

R_J_K75

Legend
Yes, they're not quite as bad as the Paizo APs, but they are still far harder to run than they ought to be.
Agreed. Ideally as a DM I want to read an adventure before I run it but 200+ pages is just too much for me these days. Then having extraneous prep to fill in the blanks is alot of work for an adventure I'd probably never come close to finishing with my group.
 

delericho

Legend
This is exactly how I feel and why I dont run the large WotC hardback adventures. Its too much information crammed into a poor format , which is a 1 giant book. Id much prefer a return to boxed sets and smaller modules.
I get the sense that many modern adventures are presented as stories to be read, rather than as adventures to be run. Certainly, I have way more adventures on the shelf than I'll ever run.

Regarding the format, I agree that the 250ish page hardback is bad for running the thing. But it does have one great virtue: that's probably the most efficient way to present that material - if it were a series of softcovers, or a boxed set, or whatever, and you're probably paying a higher price point for less adventure material. (Whether that trade-off would be worth it is an interesting question, of course...)
 

I get the sense that many modern adventures are presented as stories to be read, rather than as adventures to be run. Certainly, I have way more adventures on the shelf than I'll ever run.

Regarding the format, I agree that the 250ish page hardback is bad for running the thing. But it does have one great virtue: that's probably the most efficient way to present that material - if it were a series of softcovers, or a boxed set, or whatever, and you're probably paying a higher price point for less adventure material. (Whether that trade-off would be worth it is an interesting question, of course...)
Is it efficient though? In my view, it’s bloated to fill page count. Is anything meaningful or integral added to curse of strahd vs the original i6 Ravenloft?
 

Is it efficient though? In my view, it’s bloated to fill page count. Is anything meaningful or integral added to curse of strahd vs the original i6 Ravenloft?
The point is to turn it into a sandbox. We know that to some players "sandbox" is all important. But sandbox is also inherently inefficient, requiring lots of content that players will never see.
 

R_J_K75

Legend
I get the sense that many modern adventures are presented as stories to be read, rather than as adventures to be run.
Campaign settings, supplements and sourcebooks I used to read all the time when I was younger and playing alot more than nowadays. I was never one to read adventures though unless I planned to run it. If WotC is writing adventures to be read I find that odd, though I do know people that do read adventures just for pleasure.
I have way more adventures on the shelf than I'll ever run.
Guilty as well.
Regarding the format, I agree that the 250ish page hardback is bad for running the thing. But it does have one great virtue: that's probably the most efficient way to present that material - if it were a series of softcovers, or a boxed set, or whatever, and you're probably paying a higher price point for less adventure material. (Whether that trade-off would be worth it is an interesting question, of course...)
I bought DotMM and read maybe the first couple of chapters and spent a good 6-8 hours the day before and the day of our game fleshing out the first section of rooms after the entry well. I had to block off parts of the dungeon just so I didnt bite off more than I could handle at once. That was mostly because I spent so much time filling in the details in what I considered a pretty lack luster adventure. After the first session I put the book on the shelf and just started creating my own room descriptions. Perhaps a hardback is the most efficient way to present material from an economic or quantity of info standpoint but as we have both said its not good for running a game session. That was the first and last time I ran a WotC 5E hardback. I would certainly pay more for a few soft covers or a box set, but even those had their own shortcomings too, so nothings perfect.
 

The point is to turn it into a sandbox. We know that to some players "sandbox" is all important. But sandbox is also inherently inefficient, requiring lots of content that players will never see.
You might want to check the other thread on how to do sandboxes. They are far from inefficient and can be really easy to prep for.

And as an aside, the original Ravenloft presented a large area that could be sandboxes too. So the hardcover didn’t really introduce that.
 


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