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

Jeff Carpenter

Adventurer
One of the problems with many dungeons is that they can fall into the '15 minute adventuring day" problem if they don't have dynamic adversaries or some sort of time limit.
 

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One of the problems with many dungeons is that they can fall into the '15 minute adventuring day" problem if they don't have dynamic adversaries or some sort of time limit.
Dungeon delves are supposed to be short, strike missions with a clear party goal.
If however you have the 15 minute day, This is because all the procedures aren’t used properly.
If the party is resting in the dungeon, are you making the wandering monster checks?

Have the party exhausted all their spells and items? Then why are they engaging in so much combat? Parley, bribe and sneak!

They could try to flee the dungeon, but then they might be subject to more wandering checks. If they make it back to safety, what are the dungeon denizens doing? They should be recruiting, shoring up defences, setting ambushes. The rooms are not static.

15 or even 5 minute work day complaints lay the blame solely at the GMs door...
 


kenada

Legend
Supporter
What is rule format for "the procedures for a dungeon crawl?" (aside from morale, I guess which I only ever used briefly and discarded for just my sense of what kind of behavior makes sense based on what I know about the creatures and context and never seemed unique to dungeon-delving to me)

I have played every edition of D&D at least once and am having trouble remembering the rules for these "procedures." Exploring dungeons have basically remained the same in my games except for the kinds of dice you roll and what they might be called for the equivalent of perception check or looking for secret doors, etc. . .
I’m linking Old-School Essentials because the SRD is available freely online, but it’s B/X. The dungeon procedure breaks down exploring a dungeon into turns and specifies what you do over the course of a turn. It’s very prescriptive compared to “modern” games. The point of having it is to provide a framework for exploration-based gameplay. It sets baseline assumptions, and it presents players with decisions they have to make while they explore. Because time isn’t hand-waved, they aren’t necessarily going to be able to do everything they want.

Reaction rolls, morale checks, and escape procedures are also important. Reaction rolls ensure that not every encounter is combat, which gives the PCs opportunities to prevent conflicts before they happen (possibly even making new friends). Morale checks provide a way to end combat without having to kill everyone. If the PCs know you are rolling them, they can focus on that when killing everything might not be feasible (e.g., target a leader). Escape procedures are important because they assure players that they can recover from a mistake (picking a fight you can’t win). For example, compare my last session and similar situations that happened in 5e and PF2.

The Alexandrian wrote an article about the loss of these procedures that digs into the history a bit.
 
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Orius

Hero
keep track of time and resources, the ticking clock with the threat of wandering monsters builds tension into the exploration.

Old modules had long windy corridors. Why? To help break line of sight when fleeing or planning ambushes.

And as part of resource management, not just the wandering monsters, but:

B/X breaks the sequence down. A turn last 10 minutes. Torches last an hour. Different actions take a turn (such as move your movement rate, mapping the room, searching for secret doors). Every 2 turns (more or less depending on dungeon) make an wandering encounter check

So that torch lasts 6 turns, and there's a limited amount of space the party can explore in a turn. And actions like you said, are based on turns in the old editions, but even 3e still had stuff based on 10 minute intervals. Those long corridors are in the old modules to burn out torches or deplete lantern oil and make the party take time to explore things.

Some people just have to disagree, even when they think somebody is correct.

They probably got stuck with a ring of contrariness or something.
 


Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
You're kind of making it sound like I was disagreeing just to disagree, which isn't the case. I'm not sure what your point is here?
Nah, you got it first time! :)
If you’re gonna say funny things, don’t be surprised when people laugh!
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
B/X breaks the sequence down. A turn last 10 minutes. Torches last an hour. Different actions take a turn (such as move your movement rate, mapping the room, searching for secret doors). Every 2 turns (more or less depending on dungeon) make an wandering encounter check

I’m linking Old-School Essentials because the SRD is available freely online, but it’s B/X. The dungeon procedure breaks down exploring a dungeon into turns and specifies what you do over the course of a turn. It’s very prescriptive compared to “modern” games. The point of having it is to provide a framework for exploration-based gameplay. It sets baseline assumptions, and it presents players with decisions they have to make while they explore. Because time isn’t hand-waved, they aren’t necessarily going to be able to do everything they want.

Reaction rolls, morale checks, and escape procedures are also important. <snip>

Ah, okay. . . I guess in my experience DMs (including myself) mostly. .. well, hand-waved might be too strong a term. . . but applied that stuff as needed and just kept a vague sense of time passing to keep track of what other monsters/npcs might be doing in the rest of the dungeon, come to that area, or hear something is up. . . etc. . .

All of that stuff still exists in my games just not in the same prescriptive form. Regularly in dungeon environment, when the party encounters a room of interest, the party sets the best searchers to search, the warrior who might not be so good at searching but has a decent perception score to stand guard, while the wizard examines the strange runes or whatever and as DM I tell them how much time is passing and what if anything they hear/see while this is happening. The result is the same in my eyes.

The Alexandrian wrote an article about the loss of these procedures that digs into the history a bit.

I'll check this out when I get a chance. Thanks!
 


Ah, okay. . . I guess in my experience DMs (including myself) mostly. .. well, hand-waved might be too strong a term. . . but applied that stuff as needed and just kept a vague sense of time passing to keep track of what other monsters/npcs might be doing in the rest of the dungeon, come to that area, or hear something is up. . . etc. . .

All of that stuff still exists in my games just not in the same prescriptive form. Regularly in dungeon environment, when the party encounters a room of interest, the party sets the best searchers to search, the warrior who might not be so good at searching but has a decent perception score to stand guard, while the wizard examines the strange runes or whatever and as DM I tell them how much time is passing and what if anything they hear/see while this is happening. The result is the same in my eyes.



I'll check this out when I get a chance. Thanks!
This is true, it can be hand waived, but one can then start running into problems like the 5 mwd or the players resorting to hack and slash.

This isn’t a problem if you’ve already got the ideas in the sequence down pat and can tweak and adapt. As later editions just assume that knowledge, or just plain don’t explain it, new GMs ran into these problems. Then newer editions tried to patch these problems, morphing and changing the rules so they’ve ended up quite different to classic d&d.

Whether you think these changes are good or bad is down to you.
 

Reynard

Legend
I guess I am confused a bit. Almost every one of wotc adventures have been heavy in dungeons.
Most of them aren't centered on dungeon exploration as the primary mode of play, though, which is what I think the OP is lamenting. Lots of short, linear dungeons don't make an adventure "dungeon based." The only one I can think of that is dungeon based is Princes of the Apocalypse. I don't count Out of the Abyss because it is more of an underground wilderness environment than a traditional dungeon.

Duh -- almost forgot Dungeon of the Mad Mage, but in my defense it IS pretty forgettable and not a great dungeon.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Most of them aren't centered on dungeon exploration as the primary mode of play, though, which is what I think the OP is lamenting. Lots of short, linear dungeons don't make an adventure "dungeon based." The only one I can think of that is dungeon based is Princes of the Apocalypse. I don't count Out of the Abyss because it is more of an underground wilderness environment than a traditional dungeon.

Duh -- almost forgot Dungeon of the Mad Mage, but in my defense it IS pretty forgettable and not a great dungeon.
Yes, and just because these are being produced doesn't mean most groups are playing them. A lot of people don't like dungeon crawls because of how they experienced them in the past, particularly with systems that didn't exactly support that experience to its fullest (including this edition). There's often a perception that dungeon crawling doesn't have any "roleplaying" in it, which is nonsense of course, but being nonsense doesn't really stop people from thinking it's the case once they've formed an opinion.

As well, plenty of people like to create their own content and since dungeons are prep-heavy compared to throwing together a few plot points and some monsters/NPCs, this creates an incentive to do something other than dungeons. People only have so much time to work on prep.
 

Yes, and just because these are being produced doesn't mean most groups are playing them. A lot of people don't like dungeon crawls because of how they experienced them in the past, particularly with systems that didn't exactly support that experience to its fullest (including this edition). There's often a perception that dungeon crawling doesn't have any "roleplaying" in it, which is nonsense of course, but being nonsense doesn't really stop people from thinking it's the case once they've formed an opinion.

As well, plenty of people like to create their own content and since dungeons are prep-heavy compared to throwing together a few plot points and some monsters/NPCs, this creates an incentive to do something other than dungeons. People only have so much time to work on prep.
But they aren’t prep heavy? They are (or at least can be) far easier to develop than other kinds of adventures because you are creating an environment that inherently limits player choice compared to the wide expanse or numerous variables of a town or city.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
As later editions just assume that knowledge, or just plain don’t explain it, new GMs ran into these problems. Then newer editions tried to patch these problems, morphing and changing the rules so they’ve ended up quite different to classic d&d.

Whether you think these changes are good or bad is down to you.

Hmmm. I wonder if more examples of play (always my favorite parts of earlier edition books) would help guide DMs/players in that direction.

I've never had the "5 min work day" problem in any of my games.
 


iserith

Magic Wordsmith
But they aren’t prep heavy? They are (or at least can be) far easier to develop than other kinds of adventures because you are creating an environment that inherently limits player choice compared to the wide expanse or numerous variables of a town or city.
They're prep heavy compared to just improvising in a town or city which is pretty easy since there are many touchstones there inherently. One doesn't really need any prep for that. Don't even need a map.
 

They're prep heavy compared to just improvising in a town or city which is pretty easy since there are many touchstones there inherently. One doesn't really need any prep for that. Don't even need a map.
Yeah, I kinda see that. Though you best be having a list of names to pull out ready (and prepared for) :p.
“Again? This is the 5th Dave we’ve met. Why is his surname his profession? Why is the Blacksmiths just called “the Blacksmiths”?

There are shortcuts though to help.

1) Whenever you see a map you like, beg, borrow or steal it.
2) whenever the mood takes you, scribble a small dungeon on a gridded index card (that way you build up a library to pull out.
3) You might only need one or two dungeons. Change the set dressing, change the enemies, close off or open up different corridors. Yesterday’s kobold lair can become today’s dwarven mine!
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Yeah, I kinda see that. Though you best be having a list of names to pull out ready (and prepared for) :p.
“Again? This is the 5th Dave we’ve met. Why is his surname his profession? Why is the Blacksmiths just called “the Blacksmiths”?

There are shortcuts though to help.

1) Whenever you see a map you like, beg, borrow or steal it.
2) whenever the mood takes you, scribble a small dungeon on a gridded index card (that way you build up a library to pull out.
3) You might only need one or two dungeons. Change the set dressing, change the enemies, close off or open up different corridors. Yesterday’s kobold lair can become today’s dwarven mine!
I mostly run dungeons myself, so I've done what I can to make my prep easier. But most folks haven't or won't do this in my experience, so dungeon crawls are not so common. I play in and observe a lot of games and dungeons are definitely not on the menu very often.

I also think this is why if you tune into any stream or jump into any game, you are often going to see PCs shopping. It requires no prep from the DM and kills a good amount of session time. Portray a couple quirky, cagey NPC merchants with cringey accents and you're good. Way easier than drawing up a map, stocking with monsters, coming up with exploration challenges like traps, creating a wandering monster table, making monster factions for dynamic play, adding all the fantastical elements and trappings, making sure the map isn't linear and offers a lot of meaningful choices, etc.
 

I mostly run dungeons myself, so I've done what I can to make my prep easier. But most folks haven't or won't do this in my experience, so dungeon crawls are not so common. I play in and observe a lot of games and dungeons are definitely not on the menu very often.

I also think this is why if you tune into any stream or jump into any game, you are often going to see PCs shopping. It requires no prep from the DM and kills a good amount of session time. Portray a couple quirky, cagey NPC merchants with cringey accents and you're good. Way easier than drawing up a map, stocking with monsters, coming up with exploration challenges like traps, creating a wandering monster table, making monster factions for dynamic play, adding all the fantastical elements and trappings, making sure the map isn't linear and offers a lot of meaningful choices, etc.
Yeah, I see that. It makes me cringe. I mean, fair enough if people enjoy it, all power to them, just fantasy shop simulator isn’t for me.
 

Sunsword

Adventurer
I think this is the thing.

Dungeoncrawls that are dynamic with varying encounters and possibilities are infinitely more interesting than the kick in the door, kill all the things, repeat variety. Interesting dungeoncrawls almost require a more combat as war, lots of flasks of oil, and 10’ poles approach. Does 5E even have the procedures for a dungeoncrawl?
The exploration rules apply I don't think anything more needs to be developed.
 

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