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

Hussar

Legend
Sure. What I'm asking for is actual examples of what people like about dungeoncrawls. How they change them to make them so enjoyable. So far...nothing.
Ok, fair enough. I'm not talking about anyone else here, just myself:

  • Dungeon crawls provide a limited area with many, many choices. IOW, a small sandbox with clear parameters. This makes preparation a bit easier on the DM's side, and allows the DM to create a sort of flow tree of decision points with which to control things like tone and feel.
  • Dungeon crawls allow me to really, really go creative. My current dungeon crawl is about the group searching for a Macguffin that one of the players introduced at the beginning of the campaign. I have just (as in the last session) introduced one of the two captured celestials who are imprisoned by the BBEG in the dungeon. Lots of role play opportunities here. Note, this particular dungeon crawl wasn't particularly extensive - only a small number of encounters, so, it's basically just a really large lair.
  • Dungeon Crawls let me really go off the deep end with the weird. Something I always like.
  • Sometimes Dungeon Crawls can be just simple romps. Sometimes they can be much deeper. It's easier to have a solid theme and feel in a dungeon crawl.


    • That's off the top of my head.
 

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overgeeked

B/X Known World
Ok, fair enough. I'm not talking about anyone else here, just myself:
Awesome. Thanks.
  • Dungeon crawls provide a limited area with many, many choices. IOW, a small sandbox with clear parameters. This makes preparation a bit easier on the DM's side, and allows the DM to create a sort of flow tree of decision points with which to control things like tone and feel.
This one I understand. A more limited scope makes prep easier. Sure.
  • Dungeon crawls allow me to really, really go creative.
What is it specifically about dungeoncrawls that allows this but other environments don't? How do other environments limit your ability to "really, really go creative"?
  • Dungeon Crawls let me really go off the deep end with the weird. Something I always like.
Again, what's special about dungeoncrawls that lets you do that but not other environments? Couldn't you go just as weird in a forest, in a lake, in a town, on a mountaintop, etc?

I too am a fan of the weird in old-school D&D. Barrier Peaks and Blackmoor and Hollow World and invisible moons with samurai rakasta who ride flying saber-tooth tiger mounts...through space...yum. I'm also a fan of Spelljammer.
  • Sometimes Dungeon Crawls can be just simple romps. Sometimes they can be much deeper. It's easier to have a solid theme and feel in a dungeon crawl.
I'm assuming you feel that comes from the more limited scope of the environment you mentioned above. If I'm wrong, please let me know.

What I'm trying to understand is how the dungeon is special in this regard. You can have limited-scope locations outside of dungeons, so you should be able to achieve the same or similar results with other limited-scope locations.
 

I think Dungeon Crawls are a perfect match for environmental storytelling, because its the chief game mode where the detailed contents of each room matter, and can be described. This creates an environment where the details of the stories you're trying to seed in the environment can be placed with the various dungeon dressing and challenges. The players are alert for details that might point toward secret doors, or upcoming threats. Further dungeons are often exactly the sort of places that have stories to tell. In this context a dungeon crawl can be a kind of archaeology approach to content I find really compelling. That has its roots in places full of history, like Moria, and is something that video games are learning the power of, but works perfectly in our tabletop environment if you let it. This can also help to deliver another form of interesting story beyond playing factions off one another, and feels great if piecing the information together can help the players overcome challenges or discover secrets.

'Dungeon as Adventuring Location' full of monsters, NPCs, puzzles, secrets, and this kind of environmental storytelling, are foundational to the style of game i want to run.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I see people just repeating that they're awesome. There's not much in the way of proof.
There can't be, in either direction, as so much depends on the individual table.

If the players approach every encounter as a combat then no matter what adventure you run or what you do with it it's gonna be combat-focused.

If your players approach every encounter with the intent of avoiding combat at all costs then no matter what the adventure there's gonna be way less combat.
 


Arilyn

Hero
Not a fan of the dungeon crawl, but there are always exceptions. Eyes of the Stone Thief by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is this exception. A living dungeon which devours towns and geography to add to its construction is awesome. And it has a serious grudge against the PCs. This dungeon is full of interesting locations and encounters. Players won't be able to finish it in one go, having to return to the surface, but take too long to return and the dungeon starts coming after everything the characters hold dear.

Pelgrane Press released part of it for 5e if you want a taste but don't own 13th Age.
 

Hussar

Legend
Awesome. Thanks.

This one I understand. A more limited scope makes prep easier. Sure.

What is it specifically about dungeoncrawls that allows this but other environments don't? How do other environments limit your ability to "really, really go creative"?
Well, a town, or other location, isn't really self contained. And, by and large a town has to "function". You can't have carnivorous buildings in a town - at least, not for very long. :D Slimes and oozes don't really work in a town. Forests and other outdoor locations are somewhat limited by their location as well. You generally should use forest monsters in a forest. The amount of "Stuff that thrives underground" dwarfs any single outdoor location.
Again, what's special about dungeoncrawls that lets you do that but not other environments? Couldn't you go just as weird in a forest, in a lake, in a town, on a mountaintop, etc?
Sure, you could. But, if you do weird in a town, for example, you have to take the town into consideration - all those NPC's, and various other people. And towns are filled with stuff that is of zero interest to an adventuring party but still needs to be detailed. You should have a seamstress, a candlemaker, a shoemaker, whatever, in the town, but, from the player's perspective, who cares? They are noticed in absence, but, by and large don't really serve any purpose other than time sink for the DM. Everything in a Dungeon can be important.
I too am a fan of the weird in old-school D&D. Barrier Peaks and Blackmoor and Hollow World and invisible moons with samurai rakasta who ride flying saber-tooth tiger mounts...through space...yum. I'm also a fan of Spelljammer.
One thing that I do lament in latter era D&D is the lack of weird.
I'm assuming you feel that comes from the more limited scope of the environment you mentioned above. If I'm wrong, please let me know.
Generally, yes. A town, simply because you have 200+ people in that town, has a never ending list of stuff that could be prepared. Granted, you don't have to, but, in order to really bring the setting to life, you need those NPC's.

Then again, there's nothing wrong with an adventure in a forest or a town or on a mountain. I certainly am not arguing that dungeon crawls are better or superior in any way. They're just another tool in the box. There are fantastic town adventures and there are fantastic dungeon crawls.
What I'm trying to understand is how the dungeon is special in this regard. You can have limited-scope locations outside of dungeons, so you should be able to achieve the same or similar results with other limited-scope locations.
It's not a zero sum game.
 

TheSword

Legend
Given as one almost inevitably leads to the other (in either order!) there's little to confuse.
Soap opera is not synonymous with romance, though it is with melodrama and sentimentality. There are plenty of soap operas where the main topics are not romance. Sure romance often features but it can still be a soap opera without it being a romance story. As evidence by the tea time British tradition of warring London families, dodgy dealings, medical tragedies and wayward kids.

If you like your gaming to be melodrama then fill your boots with a soap opera style. If you want the rather weird situation of PCs falling in love with each other then sure, have at it.

Im just saying, I can think of nothing worse.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
You can't have carnivorous buildings in a town
Oh, yes you can; and that's a brilliant idea. Yoink!

Sooner or later my players are going to curse you without knowing who you are. :)
Slimes and oozes don't really work in a town.
They could, if controlled. Some sort of dissolve-things ooze, for example, could provide hella efficient sewage treatment/disposal for a city; and woe betide the foolish party who stumbles on it and, thinking it a threat, takes it out. :)
One thing that I do lament in latter era D&D is the lack of weird.
Absolutely agree.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Soap opera is not synonymous with romance, though it is with melodrama and sentimentality. There are plenty of soap operas where the main topics are not romance. Sure romance often features but it can still be a soap opera without it being a romance story. As evidence by the tea time British tradition of warring London families, dodgy dealings, medical tragedies and wayward kids.
True, I suppose. I just tend to associate the idea of 'soap opera' with who's getting together with who this week-month-year and what's the emotional fallout going to be for them and-or anyone else.
If you like your gaming to be melodrama then fill your boots with a soap opera style. If you want the rather weird situation of PCs falling in love with each other then sure, have at it.
How in the nine hells is it any more weird to have PCs fall in love with each other than it is to have them become enemies or rivals with each other? They're people. They have emotions.

People in constant close contact and frequent high danger - which describes nearly every adventuring party I've ever heard of - tend to experience heightened and more acute emotions; and those emotions can easily include love and-or lust among other things if a suitable potential partner is available.
Im just saying, I can think of nothing worse.
I can: characters as emotionless robots.
 


I'm sure he did.

Note how I didn't do that. I pointed at 40 some years of terrible dungeoncrawls published by TSR, Wizards, Paizo, etc and said that the vast majority of published dungeoncrawls are terrible because they're 90-95% pure hack-and-slash slogfests.

So far your explanation consists of "I like dungeoncrawls" and "trust me they're good" and a nonsensical statement that the dungeon isn't the adventure, the dungeon is where the adventure takes place.

You have still not managed to say what it is you actually like about dungeoncrawls or even a hint of how you run them to make them not hack-and-slash slogfests or how you do something more than the tired old trope of playing factions off each other. At this point all I can assume is you don't.

Now that we've gone around the loop again...

So to short circuit the loop we're in, how about taking a different approach? Why not tell me what you think makes dungeoncrawls so awesome? A bit of forewarning, endless hack-and-slash play is boring to me and playing dungeon factions against each other is an old trope I've been tired of for about 30 years. If you have something you enjoy that's neither of those things, please tell me all about it. I'd honestly like to know.
I believe this argument could be settled by acknowledging his point that missing information can be added. Even as Hussar pointed out, even though info for other than engaging encounters as h-n-s ones is not there in a majority of cases upon reviewing these cases the DM can devise, on the fly even, other than combat options. In essence, and with a little effort, this lessens the proportion of combat-only encounters and adds the dimension you seek.

Such instances would be no different than, by comparison, adding more dimension to a thinly described shopkeeper in town, let's say Herb Jagrioth, who is described as a potter who sells pots and pans at reasonable prices and lives above his shop with his aging wife, Matilda. To give him dimension, and to help make the town, thus, a singular province of each DM's campaign and its different interactions available/possible, Herb is further described by the DM as being an inveterate gambler who is squandering what little money they accumulate by gambling it wawy at the Gorgon's Knot Tavern; he is also falling into despair of his own creation and can sometimes be found in Oltarry Park wandering listlessly or sitting on a bench staring at a nearby pond. ...

It's largely up to players and DMs to make the worlds they traverse and control come alive with growing levels of dimension. However, I do agree that written and played AS-IS most addies have been disappointing affairs over the years, IF you play them AS-IS. And I even wrote about this in a commentary from my unpublished ms, A New Ethos in Game Design, included as © Rob Kuntz, 2013-2017, hereafter:
...
C34: Imagine: You are in this conceptual realm of a city. You know it’s a city because the GM says it’s a city and in turn associates it with several points within it for the year that you are there amongst a party/of players: The inn where you are staying, its common room, the sleeping room, the stables. Outside of that you are aware of a merchant who buys and sells goods that the party interfaces with to buy what is needed and otherwise to dispose of what is not. You learned of this merchant because you asked a broker for the GM, the innkeeper, to verify that there was a place to buy and sell goods at. You didn’t even ask for the innkeeper’s name for he is just an innkeeper with information you need to know in game terms. So the innkeeper is a convenient information booth, nameless, faceless, and useful for both the GM and the players in that sense alone, just as with the merchant and the dungeon.

The “adventure” continues in this manner, into and out of the adjacent ruins, back and forth, from dungeon to merchant to inn. It’s quite equal to what many people do in their daily routines: go to work, go to store, go home. And it has as much life in it as the latter, which is, very little.

When asked by one of the grandkids in the game what ‘Father-Fighter did in the olden days, the latter proudly attests to being at a city for a year, staying at an inn, whose name and innkeeper’s name he cannot recall, of dealing with a merchant, whose name he likewise cannot recall, and of adventuring into a “dangerous” dungeon wherein all manner of monsters, now all forgotten because they were just a grouped paycheck, were defeated in frightful battles (with lots of 20’s rolled on his part), and wherefrom treasure galore was obtained, the latter being noteworthy as treasure only because it was exchangeable for gold and gems from the merchant with no name or face.

The boy-child asks: “What about the city, papa? What was it like?

The grizzled fighter pauses for a moment, perplexed, and then says, “As I noted, it had a inn where we stayed, a merchant… and outside of it was the dungeon.”

The boy, in turn, looks perplexed, but before he can ask his next question the man interjects: “You’d have understood if you’d been there. Those were the days… The days of High Fantasy like no other…”

The moral of the story? Three linear servings of one-dimension do not make for a three-dimensional meal.
 
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I wish I could say I was! And... interesting history?
Hah. I love serendipity. You have errantly stumbled into an RPG history vortex by suggesting a duplication of a level contrived almost 50 years ago in 1974. The story is: Gary and myself were still adding levels to GHC2 then. Ernie Gygax, Gary's son, encountered a chap (unnamed or now unknown, but maybe Ernie recalls) at HS who provided him with a level he'd made as he was playing with Ernie on the side. This level was all hexagonal rooms one after the other, top to bottom, with doors on all 6 face-walls accessing the adjacent hex rooms via 10 x 10 rooms in each case. Ernie showed it to us and Gary loved it he included it in our design. I was not as fond of it as Gary was (and neither were those players who got stuck on it), in fact I found it (secretly) ridiculous. It is the only GHC2 level not created by Gary or myself.
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
Back in 1983-84 I bought B4 The Lost City.

The concept of the module blew me away! We played the module several nights in row, often till midnight. On the fourth night, after several hours of play one player ask "Why are we doing this? What's the mission?". The other players couldn't recall the mission. They all looked at me, the DM. I said: "I don't know!" we all laughed really hard. The next evening we finished the module.

After that I refused to DM or play in multi-layered mega dungeon crawls. We didn't loose the Art of Dungeon Crawling. We chose to leave it behind on purpose.

Then I bought L1 The Secret of Bone Hill (yes because of the cover ;)). I really like how Lakofka made his adventure about several small locations around Restenford. That is how I've been playing D&D ever since.
 
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TheSword

Legend
True, I suppose. I just tend to associate the idea of 'soap opera' with who's getting together with who this week-month-year and what's the emotional fallout going to be for them and-or anyone else.

How in the nine hells is it any more weird to have PCs fall in love with each other than it is to have them become enemies or rivals with each other? They're people. They have emotions.

People in constant close contact and frequent high danger - which describes nearly every adventuring party I've ever heard of - tend to experience heightened and more acute emotions; and those emotions can easily include love and-or lust among other things if a suitable potential partner is available.

I can: characters as emotionless robots.
Romantic characters in a book, film or Tv show isn’t weird. Howrown adults roleplaying fictional characters falling in love over the dinner table during a game session is weird.

Don’t get me wrong. If that’s how you all want to fill your spare time then more power to you. I just know that if I joined a group and a proportion of our game time is spent listening to the ins and outs of how much two player characters love each other I’d be annoyed. I’d be equally enjoyed by two players trying to steal from each other or trick one another.

linking back to the topic, if the roleplaying aspect of dungeon crawling has to come down to infighting or romance between PCs or playing monstrous factions off against each other then that is a serious flaw in the design for me. It would get very old very quickly.
 

Reynard

Legend
My long simmering megadungeon is called the Hellstair. Its upper regions lie below an ancient ruined city that now contains a handful of boomtown neighborhoods controlled by different criminal guilds. Delivers have to talk, fight or sneak their way through known entrances to avoid "tolls" on the way in and "taxes" on the way out. Being able to find a new, uncontrolled entrance would be a huge windfall and much blood has been spilled in the sewers and undercity looking for entrances.

Most people delve for simple treasure and stay close to the surface. No one is quite sure of the whole story but it's apparent that there were multiple waves up out of the depths and back down over the course of centuries. There is a strong theme of fiends and cults and such, giving the place its name, but there are examples of every kind of weirdness.

Those rare explorers that delve deeper find evidence of a long war between immense powers, including celestial machines and demonic fortresses and elemental incursions. Those seeking great knowledge or great power are willing to delve this deep but few succeed.
 

My long simmering megadungeon is called the Hellstair. Its upper regions lie below an ancient ruined city that now contains a handful of boomtown neighborhoods controlled by different criminal guilds. Delivers have to talk, fight or sneak their way through known entrances to avoid "tolls" on the way in and "taxes" on the way out. Being able to find a new, uncontrolled entrance would be a huge windfall and much blood has been spilled in the sewers and undercity looking for entrances.

Most people delve for simple treasure and stay close to the surface. No one is quite sure of the whole story but it's apparent that there were multiple waves up out of the depths and back down over the course of centuries. There is a strong theme of fiends and cults and such, giving the place its name, but there are examples of every kind of weirdness.

Those rare explorers that delve deeper find evidence of a long war between immense powers, including celestial machines and demonic fortresses and elemental incursions. Those seeking great knowledge or great power are willing to delve this deep but few succeed.
Sounds similar to my Greyhawk Sewers and Catacombs!
 

Reynard

Legend
Sounds similar to my Greyhawk Sewers and Catacombs!
I have never played in Greyhawk (I was a Known World and Krynn kid when we did use a published setting, which wasn't often) but I was under the impression the City of Greyhawk was a Lhankmar like living city. This is more like Earthdawn's Parlainth on the surface: a vast city ruin in which some folks have set up small boom-town fortresses against the things that crawl up from the Hellstair.
 

I have never played in Greyhawk (I was a Known World and Krynn kid when we did use a published setting, which wasn't often) but I was under the impression the City of Greyhawk was a Lhankmar like living city. This is more like Earthdawn's Parlainth on the surface: a vast city ruin in which some folks have set up small boom-town fortresses against the things that crawl up from the Hellstair.
Yeh. It was the seminal campaign 1973 onward in that the S&C area occurred; there was no real solidified WoG until the folio release in 1980; Gary and I used the Outdoor Survival Map for recreating outdoors for the world and added the old map from the C&C Society (1971) to fix locations (but not distances), The Great Kingdom & Environs.... Long history story.

You are correct about the Lankhmar-like tie in to the City of GH. A free and rough city of various adventure seekers, malcontents, power mongers, thieves and assassins, et al, many drawn to it because of the myths and legends of extraordinary magic and treasure contained within the Castle. The Sewers were in fact connected to an ancient temple (off map) that I had drawn and populated, to the castle by extra tunneling by the unknown "intruders", and was a contraband route for the Thieves Guild, and a hide-out for others (assassins. brigands) before many somethings intruded there and upset the apple cart so to speak. Many more personages and groups became embroiled thereafter, including Robilar, who guided City-backed groups to ascertain what had happened, etc. etc.

The only thing static about it are the many ossified corpses one can find. There's also a notorious river pirate tie-in (you can note his ship I drew on the map (SE section) I posted), et al.

Keep on designing! Hellstair sounds like a real winner!
 

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