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

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./
Sure, you can always cheat, and have the players encounter the same, or randomly generated, content no matter where they go, but that makes player choice meaningless, and therefore defeats the whole object of running a sandbox adventure.
And as an aside, the original Ravenloft presented a large area that could be sandboxes too. So the hardcover didn’t really introduce that.
Any old random map could be a sandbox, but you still need to fill it with stuff for the players to encounter, which CoS does.
 

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S'mon

Legend
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...)

If it was a 64 page softcover without the extraneous cruft... compare I6 Ravenloft (not exactly terse itself!) with Curse of Strahd. I ran Princes of the Apocalypse and it was a masterwork in putting excessive verbiage in exactly the wrong places, eg endless backstory the PCs can't access, while skimping on actually important stuff especially for the Dessarin valley settlements where the PCs would be spending their non-adventuring time. There's nothing inherent in 5e that necessitates this, it's more a consistent failure to understand what it needed for long term play - Phandalin in the starter sets is also very weak IMO. Compare to eg Hommlet or the Keep in Keep on the Borderlands for counter examples.
 

S'mon

Legend
Sure, you can always cheat, and have the players encounter the same, or randomly generated, content no matter where they go, but that makes player choice meaningless, and therefore defeats the whole object of running a sandbox adventure.

No, what you do is create a sparsely detailed map that can be developed in play if the PCs go that way. You are not a computer game programmer or RPG adventure publisher, you don't need to do all the work up front.

You do need to use procedural generation, eg wandering monster tables, but it is a tool that can be used well or misused.

Eg on this map I made recently
Ravenshire%2Bpng.png


Most of the named locations there, including dungeons, are not detailed (a few are); they are designed to spark player interest and GM creativity. If I were publishing it I'd need enough details on Wrath Grotto to make it runnable out of the box, but that's not needed in a home game. But even a publisher can choose whether a big dungeon is 8, 64, or 250 pages.
 

Sure, you can always cheat, and have the players encounter the same, or randomly generated, content no matter where they go, but that makes player choice meaningless, and therefore defeats the whole object of running a sandbox adventure.

Any old random map could be a sandbox, but you still need to fill it with stuff for the players to encounter, which CoS does.
What S’mon said. Plus there are already some encounters on the way to the castle in I6.

Though indeed shame on them for giving a DM space to create rather than detailing everything for them. 🙄.

I’ll take those 32 pages and expand on that if I wish, rather than Wade through a massive tome where I can miss information, hacking away stuff that I might deem irrelevant.
 
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R_J_K75

Legend
No, what you do is create a sparsely detailed map that can be developed in play if the PCs go that way. You are not a computer game programmer or RPG adventure publisher, you don't need to do all the work up front.

You do need to use procedural generation, eg wandering monster tables, but it is a tool that can be used well or misused.
I find that I do prep for a specific adventure/area Im planning to run for the next session, and even then thats just an outline with a few possible encounters. I give the players leeway to go in other directions, make things up on the spot and then in between sessions add more details as needed. Kind of backwards but saves on uneccessary prepping of details we may never use. As far as details are concerned I tend to frame things in the broader sense rather than worry about the finer points and let the players use their own imagination to fill those in for themselves. But I certainly do when its required or I think it will add value to the game.
 

EthanSental

Legend
Supporter
great article, nicely done.

Nostalgia wise I fondly remember the 32 page adventures, opening one up and reviewing them again, not so much. 3 column type set with some adventures having 1 page of those 3 columns being boxed text background exposition to read to the players...that stuff I’ll pass. All comes down to personal preference it seems.
 

great article, nicely done.

Nostalgia wise I fondly remember the 32 page adventures, opening one up and reviewing them again, not so much. 3 column type set with some adventures having 1 page of those 3 columns being boxed text background exposition to read to the players...that stuff I’ll pass. All comes down to personal preference it seems.
Oh yeah. The presentation can definitely stand improvement (which I think OSE adventures nail). But then, are modern wotc or Paizo adventures much better in this regard? 2 column text with text boxes to read aloud? The only difference is a lot of splashy, full colour art work that it fits around.
 

Reynard

Legend
Oh yeah. The presentation can definitely stand improvement (which I think OSE adventures nail). But then, are modern wotc or Paizo adventures much better in this regard? 2 column text with text boxes to read aloud? The only difference is a lot of splashy, full colour art work that it fits around.
I think there is a balance that can be had where we get both efficient, user oriented design for the actual running of the thing at the table, as well as all the cool backstory that gives it context and makes it memorable. But publishers have to spend extra time and effort on that and for WotC at least they have left that to DMsGuild creators. I know that every time I run a published adventure, even on Fantasy grounds, I immediately go to DMsGuild to find the folks that have parsed it already.
 

I think there is a balance that can be had where we get both efficient, user oriented design for the actual running of the thing at the table, as well as all the cool backstory that gives it context and makes it memorable. But publishers have to spend extra time and effort on that and for WotC at least they have left that to DMsGuild creators. I know that every time I run a published adventure, even on Fantasy grounds, I immediately go to DMsGuild to find the folks that have parsed it already.
Read Winter’s Daughter module (available in 5e and OSE), then get back to me.
It already has that balance, and WOTC ain’t meeting it. This is by a small outfit as well, not a massive company, so I’m not giving them a break or making allowances for them relying on community good will to do the heavy lifting...
 

No, what you do is create a sparsely detailed map that can be developed in play if the PCs go that way.
You can do that. But then the PCs encounter the same stuff whatever way they go. It's not a sandbox, it a railroad in which the DM puts the rails down just ahead of the players.
You are not a computer game programmer or RPG adventure publisher, you don't need to do all the work up front.
Which is why you buy a product like CoS.
You do need to use procedural generation, eg wandering monster tables, but it is a tool that can be used well or misused.

Eg on this map I made recently
Ravenshire%2Bpng.png


Most of the named locations there, including dungeons, are not detailed (a few are); they are designed to spark player interest and GM creativity. If I were publishing it I'd need enough details on Wrath Grotto to make it runnable out of the box, but that's not needed in a home game. But even a publisher can choose whether a big dungeon is 8, 64, or 250 pages.
Thing about that map - lots of stuff on it is identical. Why would I choose to go to Ravengard rather than Sanguine? Meaningless choices are meaningless.
 

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