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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.

There is a certain type of adventure that in recent years seems to have fallen out of popularity: dungeons.


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


Victoria Rules
Leaving the dungeon isn't new. But there are more options when you're not limited to a linear dungeon. When you're in a town or city or hexcrawling you can pick a direction and go. You have a freedom of movement and choice you simply don't have in a dungeon.

Though I'm not sure what a jacquayed layout would add to a dungeon, unless the point was to avoid things like tracking time, movement, resources, and wandering monsters. I like the moment when the torch goes out and the players realize they just encountered a wandering monster. Skipping that would make what little there is to like about dungeons disappear.
These two paragraphs contradict a bit. A jacquayed layout (which I assume means a layout with lots of interweaving passages and vertical connections a la Dark Tower) gives you exactly the freedom of movement and choice in a dougeon that you seem to be bemoaning the lack of. It's the exact opposite of a linear dungeon, which I also have come to dislike both as player and DM.

Sure you'll probably end up exploring the whole thing even in a fully-jacquayed dungeon, but the same can be said of a town.
I think combat as sport is part of the problem. Combat as war at least relies on the players' creativity to overcome and/or avoid some fights. Combat as sport makes every fight a stand-up brawl to the death and turns things tedious and dull rather quickly.

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B/X Known World
These two paragraphs contradict a bit. A jacquayed layout (which I assume means a layout with lots of interweaving passages and vertical connections a la Dark Tower) gives you exactly the freedom of movement and choice in a dougeon that you seem to be bemoaning the lack of. It's the exact opposite of a linear dungeon, which I also have come to dislike both as player and DM.

Sure you'll probably end up exploring the whole thing even in a fully-jacquayed dungeon, but the same can be said of a town.

I must be using the word wring then. I thought it meant abstracted, as in a pointcrawl, where the distance and travel between two points was abstracted and thus rendered basically irrelevant.


Small Ball Archmage
I must be using the word wring then. I thought it meant abstracted, as in a pointcrawl, where the distance and travel between two points was abstracted and thus rendered basically irrelevant.


B/X Known World
People have kept answering saying that good dungeons are not just linear combat fests yet you keep using that line.
Yes, a few people have responded with actual attempts at conversation and examples. And I appreciate that. Most are just dismissively stating and restating that dungeons are awesome without any attempt at explanation or examples.
It’s like you saying you can do anything you want in town, and everyone else in response just going , “well towns are just boring places to shop”.
You mean exactly like they have been?
It’s becoming increasingly frustrating to read when you ask what can be done in a dungeon, you get a response, then just ignore it and repeat that they are boring combat fests.
From my end as well. People keep saying dungeons are awesome, and I keep asking what makes dungeons so awesome, and the response (except for 2-3 people) has been "well, they just are."
Jacquaying the dungeon doesn’t obviate the resource mechanic at all. It enhances it! You are forced to pay more attention to your surroundings, your mapping, exploring the unknown (adding to the exploration factor which you don’t get in towns. Towns are known territory, the dungeon is a true frontier). This adds to the freedom of where to go, that’s the whole point of Jacquaying the dungeon!! You get that freedom and choice.
Yep. My fault. I was using the word wrong.
I’m building a dungeon now for example that has a space ship that has crashed into a mountain many years ago and is covered now.

The mountain used to hold a dwarven city (this is now bisected by the ship.

The dwarven city was only recently uncovered by a nearby town’s mining operation. As the towns people have disappeared (that ship is bad news), orcs have made a lair in the lower parts of the mine...so I have several unique biomes in that alone, plus multiple routes into the ship/dwarven city and throughout the ship itself.
That sounds like an interesting set up. Thanks for the example. So what will the PCs do in that dungeon?
You are right though about combat as sport really denting a dungeon. Along with the increasing xp for monsters and removing xp for gold. The purpose of the dungeon was to explore, get treasure, minimise bloody and costly combat. Install those elements into the game, the dungeon suddenly becomes a lot more interesting.
Exactly. Dungeons as a spelunking expedition rather than a protracted home invasion.
Yeah, it really wasn't meant to play that way. The stats are there for if they are needed, and for sure they often will be, but it's a distinct lack of imagination if the whole thing just becomes a kick-in-the-door slashfest.
I've played a lot of D&D over the years, in that time I have never had a DM run a dungeon that wasn't a hack-and-slash-athon. Not once. The vast majority have been published modules. And across several dozen DMs. They've all been kick in the door, murder, loot, kick in the door...
I don't know if I can put my finger on what makes dungeons fun for me, and I certainly don't contend that they have some exclusive claim to fun, but the bounded nature of dungeons somehow makes the discoveries more satisfying. It's always a question of "how deep does it go?" and "what more am I missing?" The dungeon is a destination in and of itself that invites that exploration. I don't get that same feeling from journeying through, say a forest. A forest is a backdrop to an adventure. I rarely see the forest itself be the adventure.
Sure. And thanks for the attempt at an answer.
I'm sorry that you've lost the wonder. What is it about dungeons that makes it so you can't have those adventures in a dungeon?
I haven't lost "the wonder". I just dislike dungeoncrawls because, to date, to a dungeon, they've all been basically linear slug-fests.
City adventures don't seem as interesting as Dungeons in my experience, usually they're bereft of spacial context in a way that renders the point moot, i can say that i'm walking east in a city, but what does that actually mean? Either there's a point of interest for me to interact with, or I'm just going to be meandering around in search of adventure. I've actually tried to run them, but cities and wilderness are just these massive places that can be monotonous to go through, unless you use something like a point crawl procedure, but then they just become dungeons with the serial numbers filed off-- individual areas become rooms, or sub-areas in the dungeon, you don't have hallways so you can go in any direction, but the directions are so abstract, thats not especially more meaningful, its like having four to eight hallways off of each area, based off what the GM has prepped, or is willing to improvise in that direction.
I think a properly prepared, i.e. fully prepared, town can be a lot more interesting than a dungeon because you can go anywhere and do anything. Because it's not just a point crawl. Even if it become monotonous. That's the players' choice. If they want to go bagel shopping for an hour, it's their call. If they want to check in with the inn, jobs board, or local guilds for something to do, great. It's not the DM's job to spoon feed them or lead them by the nose. I think it's the DM's job to provide hooks and rumors and clues, but generally to play the environment the PCs are engaged in, whatever that environment happens to be.
I feel that Combat as Sport gets a bad rap, and I find Combat as War largely boring because of the way that it emphasizes more arbitrary solutions to problems-- there's less room for the individual abilities of the players, and the individual abilities of the monsters to make a meaningful impact. Any party can create a fire to smoke creatures out of a room, any party can collapse a hallway, and once you've done those kinds of solutions once or twice, they begin to feel somewhat rote. Being able to alter or avoid fights, and solve problems in unique ways is still a key part of play, as far as I'm concerned, but squaring up and taking your foes using the character abilities you chose, expressing yourself in that way, and being able to engage in moment to moment combat tactics is just as important.
I feel that combat as sport is boring and rote. Especially in 5E. The odds are already stacked drastically in the PCs' favor. Winning a fight is a foregone conclusion. Unless the DM chooses to throw deadly fights at you. Which at least they would be more interesting and intense than a boring old square off with perfectly balanced CR monsters for the party.

I think solving things in a unique way and avoiding combat is part of combat as war. I don't see it as part of combat as sport. It would effectively be cheating at the sport.

I'd rather express myself through finding interesting and novel ways to avoid fights or end them before they start. I don't think of squaring off in a fight I'm all but predetermined to win as a form of self expression. I find it boring.
In that sense OSR games traditionally feel anemic to us, like they're made for people who don't like combat, or who are obsessed with green text style stories, where the ridiculousness is the point. They deny us fun fights in the name of encouraging creative thinking, whereas we do enjoy taking confrontations head on, much of the time. The OSR style is fine and all, but not really for me-- they also tend to to disrupt the narrative by demanding that you be weak enough to always have to game the situation somehow, even when not every good story is about gaming the situation, not every hero is a macguyver, or a guerilla.
I think the narrative is whatever emerges in play at the table. There's no greater narrative we should be worried about. The story we're telling is whatever happens in the game as we play it. If I want a narrative told to me, I'll read a book.
I also feel like its easier to add combat as war elements to combat as sport, since it just means allowing players to disrupt or split up harder encounters though the use of their environment, and making some areas hard enough for them to want to consider that, than to add combat as sport elements to combat as war, since combat as war traditionally asserts itself by making combat as sport a doomed proposition on a systemic level.
I think combat as sport is wildly unrealistic in every imaginable way. Whatever little narrative there is in a game is destroyed if you have characters acting in wildly unrealistic ways. Like willingly squaring off for a fair and perfectly balanced fight where someone (almost always the monsters) will end up dead. That's not how you fight. That's how you die.
For an example of this, we ended up picking Starfinder over Stars Without Number, because after reading a combat example, my players noticed exactly how few hit points the player characters actually have, there's fundamentally no way to have a fight where the players can take it head on and be 'playing well' which just throws out so much narrative space we enjoy in our PF2e/5e/4e games.
I think character death and low hit points are far more interesting an obstacle to deal with. I'd rather have a character with low hit points who tries, fails, and dies, than a character with high hit points and can't fail even if he tried. That seems utterly boring to me. There's no challenge. It's not exciting if there's no risk. It's only a name on a character sheet. But whatever advancement I achieved I get to own because it was hard to get that advancement. It wasn't a foregone conclusion that will only not happen if the dice go really, really badly for me in some freak accident. I want whatever advancement I get or loot I get to feel earned. Not like it's a participation trophy.
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I suspect like anything you’d get one shot at the “wow...that’s cool” response before you’d hit diminishing returns. Just like every other monster in the game. After 3-4 your players would be yawning. “Oh, gee, another warren of kobolds...yawn.” Track that out after nearly 40 years of playing and plop a kobold warren in front of them and you’re somehow surprised everyone’s grabbing their phones between turns.
And yet, funnily enough, no, that is not what happens.

Fair cop though. If you want to turn every town into a dungeon, then, well, I can see why you wouldn't see much difference between a town and a dungeon. If every town is ooze infested, zombie infested, hell holes just a hair away from tragedy, then, sure, towns can replace dungeons.

But me? I'm looking at how towns are presented in most modules and whatnot. And it certainly isn't what you're talking about.

That sounds like an interesting set up. Thanks for the example. So what will the PCs do in that dungeon?
So I play AD&D and OSE primarily, so it’s still the old school hunting for treasure. It’s a moving target at the moment as I’m still building it and adding in new things as inspiration hits me.

But general high level is kind of Expedition to the Barrier peaks meets Aliens/The Thing (in vibe).

The main challenge of this dungeon is in mapping exploration as it pushes the concept of verticality with paths taking you up and down.

The pcs will be lured to the mountain region by tales of a lost dwarven kingdom and the dwarven treasure maguffin. They will find a mining town that’s been abandoned, Mary Celeste style, a lot of the town’s treasures (such as silverware, jewellery etc) stripped and some journals that hint at strange going’s on.

As they explore the mine, they’ll find more hints at this, depending on the route taken, they’ll find evidence of dwarves attacking their own, or if they go through an orc lair, find a young orc who’s dad is the chieftain who went to investigate the source of these monsters and not come back (please find him etc).

The ship has crashed nose first at nearly a 45 degree angle, but the local gravity initially makes things “normal”. Of course, you can find the bridge to adjust this to make things interesting. There will be things to explore and prod (like an enhancement machine that may raise/lower stats through brutal automated surgery), on board AI that needs assistance, that laser trap from the first resident evil, some potential allies stuck in a stasis field trap (they can provide information and have potential side quests of their own), an elevator that may or may not collapse but provide a nice shaft that intersects the levels, an area filled with radiation leaks where you need to find a hazmat suit to safely navigate, teleported pads that only function one way to disorient the party, Holographic rec room, a small local bio zoo with “interesting creaturesfound on the travels,and a way to find the other half of the dwarven city through the mines.

Of course, there’s other items to find that delve into sci fi tropes like power swords, jet boots, pulse rifles and heavy flamers.

What keyed combat encounters there are will also play with the tropes to make them interesting. To access the radiated chamber safely, you need the hazmat suit and only one person is given access to the chamber at a time. To wear the hazmat suit, you must strip everything else off. As the room starts to vent and the doors open again, they might also open to expose themselves to irradiated mutants. Can the party member make it back to the rest of the party in time?

Can you successfully fight in zero G? You want to take on a large monster with that mech rig from Aliens? You bet!

So I’m still working on it, but hopefully you can see that it presents a wide variety of options, exploration, interactivity, goals, more than just combat (and interesting combat when it does break out).


I'm careful about stating "nevers." Not a fan of long sprawling dungeon crawls, except that one time... Don't like the Barbarian class, except the fun I did have when Barbarian was the perfect class for the character I pictured. 😊

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