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

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Well, a town, or other location, isn't really self contained. And, by and large a town has to "function".
Only if you want it to.
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.
Of course you can. Threshold, the town from the early BECMI sets had a garbage disposal ooze.
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.
Well, you can use whatever you want and justify it however you want. You’re a fellow fan of the weird, so up the weird factor by coloring outside the lines.
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 don’t see it that way. You can do whatever you want. Everything in town can be important, too. The town has a secret. They’re cultists or were taken over by doppelgängers or the whole place is a mimic colony...including the tools and buildings.
One thing that I do lament in latter era D&D is the lack of weird.
Ditto.
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.
Sure. Depends on the size of the town and how much prep you want to do. But I don’t see how that wouldn’t equally apply to a dungeon that was more involved than kill all the things.
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.
Yeah, that’s what I’m hearing. And I’m not arguing wilderness or towns are perfect, they just seem to have everything a dungeon could have plus more, plus the freedom to pick a direction and go. So it seems like a dungeon only offers a limited scope of prep.

I’m just trying to get clued in on what makes dungeons special. I’m just not seeing what’s uniquely awesome about them.
It's not a zero sum game.
No, but if you can do everything you can in a dungeon outside a dungeon, why use a dungeon? What’s the uniquely awesome bit you get from a dungeon you can’t get from some other locale? Less prep, sure. But that’s not a “wow...dungeons!” if you take my meaning.
 
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Wolfram stout

Adventurer
This thread has inspired a new character idea for me. A Great Old One Warlock. The character is a guild artisan (cartographer) who camped out at the wrong set of ruins, had bad dreams of a being known as the Great Egax and woke up with powers and an undeniable thrust to draw Dungeons. Lots of them. He gets a pet Imp that helps him and communicates the drawings to the Great one.
 

I’m just trying to get clued in on what makes dungeons special. I’m just not seeing what’s uniquely awesome about them.
Honestly, I think the correct answer here is dungeons (as opposed to towns or forests) are more bounded, ergo, easier to fill up with cool stuff. A forest is just so much bigger, and a town has so many more connections, that giving them that "filled feel" is a lot more work. (Not harder, just more work.)

But ever that's not necessarily true, just generally mostly true, and not really to a huge degree.

The issue is that your main issue with published dungeons (95%+ combat) is not at all inherent to dungeons. It's just how published dungeons are, for some reason. So people who's dungeons don't look like that simply do not have that problem.
 

Reynard

Legend
Honestly, I think the correct answer here is dungeons (as opposed to towns or forests) are more bounded, ergo, easier to fill up with cool stuff. A forest is just so much bigger, and a town has so many more connections, that giving them that "filled feel" is a lot more work. (Not harder, just more work.)

But ever that's not necessarily true, just generally mostly true, and not really to a huge degree.

The issue is that your main issue with published dungeons (95%+ combat) is not at all inherent to dungeons. It's just how published dungeons are, for some reason. So people who's dungeons don't look like that simply do not have that problem.
I also think that 95% is hyperbole and if we actually broke down any given published dungeon we would find the ratio far lower, even if we allowed for PCs that only interact with the dungeon by way of violence.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Honestly, I think the correct answer here is dungeons (as opposed to towns or forests) are more bounded, ergo, easier to fill up with cool stuff. A forest is just so much bigger, and a town has so many more connections, that giving them that "filled feel" is a lot more work. (Not harder, just more work.)
Absolutely granted.
The issue is that your main issue with published dungeons (95%+ combat) is not at all inherent to dungeons. It's just how published dungeons are, for some reason. So people who's dungeons don't look like that simply do not have that problem.
Sure. So then what do people's dungeons actually look like if they're not 95% combat and what do they offer re: interaction beyond playing factions off each other? So far there's very little in the way of concrete examples. So far there's "it give me permission to get weird" and "occasionally opening hell-mouth that lets waves of demons through". My guess is the former is focused on atmosphere and exploration while the latter is focused on combat...and playing faction against each other.
 

Well, discovery is a big one, as I mentioned earlier, they're great for environmental storytelling. You might learn about the history and secrets of people associated with the dungeon. Then there's also the discovery of just unraveling the dungeon's secrets-- the secret doors, hidden treasure, wandering events and such.

That's harder to do out of a dungeon structure than, because you're not in the same narrative mode as you are in environments structured as dungeons. It would be bizarre to try and describe the details of a 12 mile hex in the same way.

You can do other things with Dungeon factions than just play them off against one another. You can get them to like you so they give you information, keys to special areas of the dungeon, and other stuff or have a different experience because they don't like you and you need to avoid their territory.

You can use Zelda style puzzle box mechanics, and sprawling interconnected maps to perform a kind of navigation challenge that feels very different than performing a hexcrawl, because it has such a different scale and the environment has such constrained rules concerning direction. Like in a hexcrawl if the place is north, you just go north, but in a proper dungeon crawl you need to work out the correct passages that can take you where you want to go, especially if the dungeon is jaquayed.
 
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jgsugden

Legend
I was unaware they'd fallen out of favor. For the segments of my campaign that are more sandbox, there are always a few dungeon sites worth exploring. I also see a lot of WotC products and 3rd party resources that feature dungeons that PCs will investigate for prolonged times.

My general approach to building a dungeon is to start with the story of the dungeon, and then build the features of it to tell that story. I don't want PCs just to be treasure collecting - I want the story they're in to be moving forward, so most dungeons either tell a self contained story that hints at other stories (giving background) or they have elements that feature into the core storylines of the game.

As an example, the PCs might be advanced scouts exploring ruins where refugees want to settle. The ruins may consist of 100 buildings on the surface, as well as a dwarven settlement that existed beneath the surface city. As the PCs explore the location, they uncover what befell the last residents of the nation, uncover clues to magics unique to that former ruined society, and have a chance to make allies (or enemies) of the creatures found there - all of which will influence their next dozen or so sandbox story hooks.
 

I also think that 95% is hyperbole and if we actually broke down any given published dungeon we would find the ratio far lower, even if we allowed for PCs that only interact with the dungeon by way of violence.
I didn't want to quibble on the details, because it's still clearly combat-focused. The exact percentage isn't low enough to change Overgeeked's point.

Sure. So then what do people's dungeons actually look like if they're not 95% combat and what do they offer re: interaction beyond playing factions off each other? So far there's very little in the way of concrete examples. So far there's "it give me permission to get weird" and "occasionally opening hell-mouth that lets waves of demons through". My guess is the former is focused on atmosphere and exploration while the latter is focused on combat...and playing faction against each other.
Basically 2 things:

1. Rooms with weird stuff for players/pc's to interact with. Traps, odd magic stuff, puzzles, etc. A fountain that grants stupid wishes, a weird glowing crystal infused with lightning magic - or for a low-level example: a wide, windy chasm with the rest of the corridor on the other side. These can be challenges or just oddities, but they should be at least as common as guaranteed fights, IMO.

My best memories of these sort of encounters come from Numenaria, and not DnD, although the ruleset doesn't technically matter. I'd probably look into OSR modules for ideas as well.

2. Creatures to talk to rather than fight. This requires buy-in from the players as well (they have to try talking), but the dungeon designer need to give notes on what the creature wants and what it will pay for that, its personality, and other roleplaying notes. Basically, if it can talk, it should generally prefer talking to fighting. Creatures that live want to keep living.

Frankly I think all monster stat blocks should start with social notes, then general stats, and combat stuff on the bottom.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I also think that 95% is hyperbole and if we actually broke down any given published dungeon we would find the ratio far lower, even if we allowed for PCs that only interact with the dungeon by way of violence.
Random pick. Temple of Elemental Evil. Quick skim of the first floor only. There are 52 keyed rooms. For those there are 43 combat stat blocks. So 82%. The rest are empty rooms that might have something to find. One of those rooms has 13 prisoners. Their stat blocks include hit points and XP values for murdering them. The prisoners are all naked. Only the men are given stat blocks and only the men are chained up. It's not hard to guess that there's more combat and even less interaction the deeper in you go. And in case anyone objects to that particular dungeon it was a random pick from my pile of Top 30 Modules of All Time as voted by Dungeon Magazine back in 2004. Temple of Elemental Evil was voted #4 on that list of 30.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Frankly I think all monster stat blocks should start with social notes, then general stats, and combat stuff on the bottom.
I wanted to call this out specifically. Back in the day we had reaction rolls to see how monsters would react to the party. You had the option to not just murder everything you happened across from the beginning. It took 5E what...from 2014 until the end of 2020 to put the words "Meeting a monster doesn't have to spark a fight" in print. And we had things like morale to measure how long monsters would fight. Now it's just assumed that every encounter must be a fight and that every fight is to the death. Combat as sport has a lot to answer for.
 

In my estimation, dungeon crawling lost its identity decades ago when people started excising quintessential aspects of the crawl (which, thankfully, we can just go back and play Moldvay or play modern games like Torchbearer); Wandering Monster Clock check every 2 Turns + Monster Reaction + Required Rest per 4 Exploration Turns + encoded (rather than handwaved) Encumbrance (which encourages spending capital on a Porter/Mule et al) + Gold for xp, etc.

A classic dungeon crawl isn't just about theatricality in exposition, creating oppressive ambience, creating a functional ecology, puzzles, individual exploration turns and individual decision points, managing loadout, trying to control the resource refresh game.

Its about those things but its also about the encoded crushing weight/table-facing ticking clock of the enterprise and GMs being surprised about how the dice turn up and having to make interesting dice outcomes work (which all of that stuff I mentioned in the first paragraph either outright creates or enhances). The removal (either by system or GM) of all of that stuff has real consequences on the play.
 

Random pick. Temple of Elemental Evil. Quick skim of the first floor only. There are 52 keyed rooms. For those there are 43 combat stat blocks. So 82%. The rest are empty rooms that might have something to find. One of those rooms has 13 prisoners. Their stat blocks include hit points and XP values for murdering them. The prisoners are all naked. Only the men are given stat blocks and only the men are chained up. It's not hard to guess that there's more combat and even less interaction the deeper in you go. And in case anyone objects to that particular dungeon it was a random pick from my pile of Top 30 Modules of All Time as voted by Dungeon Magazine back in 2004. Temple of Elemental Evil was voted #4 on that list of 30.
Well it's part of the whole story starting in Hommlet>The Ruined Moat House>TOEE. Putting one's finger on a part of the finale and saying, "look in the end = combat," rather than accurately dispersing the narrative among its various parts, would be like saying, look, we investigated and talked about and reconned Dol Guldur and then... jeepers, Combat! to drive Sauron forth from it
 

Reynard

Legend
Random pick. Temple of Elemental Evil. Quick skim of the first floor only. There are 52 keyed rooms. For those there are 43 combat stat blocks. So 82%. The rest are empty rooms that might have something to find. One of those rooms has 13 prisoners. Their stat blocks include hit points and XP values for murdering them. The prisoners are all naked. Only the men are given stat blocks and only the men are chained up. It's not hard to guess that there's more combat and even less interaction the deeper in you go. And in case anyone objects to that particular dungeon it was a random pick from my pile of Top 30 Modules of All Time as voted by Dungeon Magazine back in 2004. Temple of Elemental Evil was voted #4 on that list of 30.

I wanted to call this out specifically. Back in the day we had reaction rolls to see how monsters would react to the party. You had the option to not just murder everything you happened across from the beginning. It took 5E what...from 2014 until the end of 2020 to put the words "Meeting a monster doesn't have to spark a fight" in print. And we had things like morale to measure how long monsters would fight. Now it's just assumed that every encounter must be a fight and that every fight is to the death. Combat as sport has a lot to answer for.
These two statements are contradictory and I think show you aren't really discussing this in good faith. You know that "back in the day" there was a built in mechanism for determining whether or not an encounter was likely to be combat oriented, then pull an example from "back in the day" to "prove" that dungeons are nothing but combat. I bet if you polled people on this forum you would get many, many folks who experienced that module without it being a terrible, 82% combat slog.
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
I wanted to call this out specifically. Back in the day we had reaction rolls to see how monsters would react to the party. You had the option to not just murder everything you happened across from the beginning. It took 5E what...from 2014 until the end of 2020 to put the words "Meeting a monster doesn't have to spark a fight" in print. And we had things like morale to measure how long monsters would fight. Now it's just assumed that every encounter must be a fight and that every fight is to the death. Combat as sport has a lot to answer for.
False. The 5e DMG has covered this since 2014
  • See page 244 for Social Interaction rules.
  • See page 273 for Morale rules.
 

These two statements are contradictory and I think show you aren't really discussing this in good faith. You know that "back in the day" there was a built in mechanism for determining whether or not an encounter was likely to be combat oriented, then pull an example from "back in the day" to "prove" that dungeons are nothing but combat. I bet if you polled people on this forum you would get many, many folks who experienced that module without it being a terrible, 82% combat slog.
Since I helped playtest it and otherwise interfaced with the gamers that did I can say that it was not a "combat slog" kill the monster and take its stuff ordeal, The playtest lasted several months in fact; and from what I observed there was a lot of various types of play going on; and admittedly the PCs even in the know were very cautious with the information they had about the holistic scenario.

I can say the same for Gary's G-D-Q series; lots of various play going on especially when one gets to the Drow and their adversarial political culture/societal part. IME Gary's best series alongside TOEE. At the very least it gave Salvatore lots to work with. ;)
 

Sabathius42

Bree-Yark
This here. I think maybe some groups (such as the OP) may have moved away from it, but I actually have found myself leaning hard into dungeon type environments for the last year+ as they are easier to run on Roll20.
I GM a completely homebrew campaign, so if I want to feature a dungeon I either have to spend a LOT of time actually preplanning it OR I have to import it from another adventure and make it fit.

As a general rule I really dislike dungeons without a thought out ecology, so my designs for long lost locations are limited to a small pallette of monsters that are essentially "timeless guards" OR I have to throw away the classic traps and puzzles because they have already been sprung or solved by the current inhabitants.

The biggest dungeon designed in my world was a complex of 4 pyramids in the middle of a desert. One of the pyramids was inhabited by Yuan-Ti and slaving caravans. It was trap and puzzleless, offered up RP opportunities, and was basically a city style location.

A second pyramid was uninhabited but VERY hard to find a way into and full of trap.

A third pyramid was previously looted and was open to desert critters with little reward.

the final pyramid, the largest, was protected from teleportation and highly guarded by whoever built the pyramids long ago. In addition to teleportation blocking magic in the stone, the tomb was filled with undead tomb guardians. It also had the best loot.

This one complex was by far the most time I spent on any one location in my campaign, essentially having to write a complete module ahead of time. Normally I am very much an improv style GM with a half a page of notes, a palette of monsters pre chosen, and some ideas floating in my head.

When I hit middle age and had to juggle work, a house, kids, parents, and other issues....taking 5 hours to design and populate a dungeon isn't high on the list of thing I want to do.
 

Sabathius42

Bree-Yark
This thread has inspired a new character idea for me. A Great Old One Warlock. The character is a guild artisan (cartographer) who camped out at the wrong set of ruins, had bad dreams of a being known as the Great Egax and woke up with powers and an undeniable thrust to draw Dungeons. Lots of them. He gets a pet Imp that helps him and communicates the drawings to the Great one.
What if....all the dungeons he drew in his bewitched notebook sprung to life in their own pocket dimensions and at some point the party got stuck in them....

METAPLOT!
 

I predict a huge resurgence in DCs since it will require really fine-tuned and more abstracted designs less reliant on existing templates and more on new models grafted together from the parts discussed here and yet to come. The real designers worth their salt must now stand forth and make their marks! Onward ! erh, DOWNWARD!! ;)
 

I predict a huge resurgence in DCs since it will require really fine-tuned and more abstracted designs less reliant on existing templates and more on new models grafted together from the parts discussed here and yet to come. The real designers worth their salt must now stand forth and make their marks! Onward ! erh, DOWNWARD!! ;)
I agree, its even more telling to me that Pathfinder 2e has an elaborate exploration mode that enables it in a way fantasy games outside the OSR sphere don't seem to have had in a long time. Paizo designs dungeons like the 3rd/4th edition norm, but the system itself is so much more powerful in terms of exploration and navigation, that it feels like its waiting for a killer app to take advantage of it.
 

Hussar

Legend
No, but if you can do everything you can in a dungeon outside a dungeon, why use a dungeon? What’s the uniquely awesome bit you get from a dungeon you can’t get from some other locale? Less prep, sure. But that’s not a “wow...dungeons!” if you take my meaning.
Well, because no you can't.

Sure, you can have that ooze garbage eater. But, you won't have oozes all over the place (presuming a functioning town). Again, sure you could make the entire town full of mimics, but, that only works once. How many mimic towns do you think you can have in your setting? By and large, towns aren't full of monsters. They aren't full of traps. They don't have threats around every corner, because, well, they're towns. Regular people, ie. not monsters and not adventurers, live in towns and do their day to day stuff in that town.

Sure, you could turn every town into a dungeon, but, that kinda defeats the purpose. It's fairly difficult to put a dragon in a town. Again, presuming that the town is functioning and not in the process of being destroyed. But, I can plop a dragon, or a beholder, or any number of other critters in a dungeon and it makes a lot more sense.

Towns, by their very nature, are limited in the types of threats you can place in them. Same goes for most above ground locations. You don't expect a dragon to keep his hoard in a big pile in a clearing in the forest do you? Do your towns have trolls in them? And giants? A kobold warren is a thing of beauty. As is the huge tunnels left by purple worms.

I mean, I look at this:


And think, wow, I could do SO MUCH with this. To the point where I am beginning to stat this beast out (although, not quite all of it). This is the lair of Thessalar, the lich responsible for the owlbear, whom the party has been tangling with for some time now. This is the climax of a year long (or so) campaign. So far, I've only done the west most section - the Woodland Shrine. One of the encounters there is with a celestial that can open teleport gates. Should the party search around, and get past the rather nasty hydra guarding the celestial, they can use that celestial to teleport into the dungeon and bypass the Ancient Castle.

Ok, I haven't gotten further than that, but, the party has a specific goal, a honking big dungeon to deal with and lots of goodies.
 
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