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

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
There's a couple of things raised in the thread thus far which, to me, are (and always have been) in full-on contradiction.

Some of you say things to the effect of "Make sure the dungeon has a viable ecology". Valid point. I like it.
Some of you say things to the effect of "Make sure you check for wandering monsters every two turns". Valid point. I like it.

BU-U-UT

There's far too many situations where the very existence of all those wandering monsters completely blows up the viable-ecology concept. Where do they come from? What do they eat? Why haven't they slowly whittled away all the permanent dungeon residents?

My own sometimes-used solution* is to, if there's to be wandering monsters, cap their numbers by listing them off and knock 'em off that list once the party has defeated them; to the point where a party might never meet any more once they've beaten the whole list for that dungeon.

Does or could this eventually lead to a 15-minute workday later in the adventure? Sure. Is this a problem? No. It's what the characters would reasonably do.

* - exception: if the dungeon contains an actual monster-spawner e.g. an open gate to another plane, those wanderers are just gonna keep on coming until the source is shut off. :)
 

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R_J_K75

Legend
Allow me to disagree with your disagreement. :)

Linear-path dungeons IMO are (almost always) awful. Awful for the players, whose only real choice becomes whether to go forward or retreat; and boring for the DM, who gets to do nothing but run the encounters in neatly scripted order.
I dont necessarily disagree with your disagreement; Im sure it could be very boring, and one dimentional depending on the particular table. Its not for everyone. OTOH if planned and run correctly they can work and be very fun, Ive ran and played them. Sometimes a quick 2 minute setup by the DM where the players can jump right in is a welcomed change from multiple options. The key is that the adventure needs a specific goal, the encounters have to make sense, be interesting, and not just a bunch of random encounters strung together. To be clear Im not saying taking away players decision making entirely within encounters, but rather the goal being fixed and the dungeon or area in which the players need to achieve the goal be linear.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
There's far too many situations where the very existence of all those wandering monsters completely blows up the viable-ecology concept. Where do they come from? What do they eat? Why haven't they slowly whittled away all the permanent dungeon residents?

Oh yeah! In a well-designed dungeon, most of the wandering monsters should be from keyed locations going around to do their thing (guard duty, bathing, hunting, raid on another community of humanoids living there, etc) with a handful being true wanderers who found their way in and will leave again or who are new arrivals and maybe don't have a set lair yet.

The first kind should be marked off and the descriptions of their keyed encounters should say stuff like, "If the party has not encounter these norkers when they were on their way back from gathering algae for their meal. . . etc.. ."
 

TwoSix

Dirty, realism-hating munchkin powergamer
My own sometimes-used solution* is to, if there's to be wandering monsters, cap their numbers by listing them off and knock 'em off that list once the party has defeated them; to the point where a party might never meet any more once they've beaten the whole list for that dungeon.
Yea, I like that. I can't imagine building a site without planning what would live in there. Having a set of inhabitants that are in random/unkeyed locations just makes sense, and can fulfill the game need of encounters providing pressure outside of new locations.
 

R_J_K75

Legend
* - exception: if the dungeon contains an actual monster-spawner e.g. an open gate to another plane, those wanderers are just gonna keep on coming until the source is shut off. :)
Like a Deepspawn. Those are fun. Linear dungeon, kill the deepspawn....or die trying.
 

I dont necessarily disagree with your disagreement; Im sure it could be very boring, and one dimentional depending on the particular table. Its not for everyone. OTOH if planned and run correctly they can work and be very fun, Ive ran and played them. Sometimes a quick 2 minute setup by the DM where the players can jump right in is a welcomed change from multiple options. The key is that the adventure needs a specific goal, the encounters have to make sense, be interesting, and not just a bunch of random encounters strung together. To be clear Im not saying taking away players decision making entirely within encounters, but rather the goal being fixed and the dungeon or area in which the players need to achieve the goal be linear.
Meh, I’d disagree, the adventure itself doesn’t need a goal. The site can exist, and the players can create their own goal based on rumours they’ve heard for example.

Do the encounters have to make sense? Not always, at least not an obvious sense, especially if you are making a mythic underworld.

No part of a dungeon needs to be linear at all. If the players need to do something, the environment should be part of the challenge as well.
 



Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I dont necessarily disagree with your disagreement; Im sure it could be very boring, and one dimentional depending on the particular table. Its not for everyone. OTOH if planned and run correctly they can work and be very fun, Ive ran and played them. Sometimes a quick 2 minute setup by the DM where the players can jump right in is a welcomed change from multiple options. The key is that the adventure needs a specific goal, the encounters have to make sense, be interesting, and not just a bunch of random encounters strung together. To be clear Im not saying taking away players decision making entirely within encounters, but rather the goal being fixed and the dungeon or area in which the players need to achieve the goal be linear.
I guess it also depends on the size of dungeon and-or the length of real-world time you expect/want it to take.

I mean, sure, if you're looking to start and finish an adventure in one session then a quick three-room linear banger with a few bells and whistles is all you need.

I rarely if ever run those. Most - as in almost all - of the dungeons I run are big multi-session affairs, often using canned modules or mods of same.
 


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