The Lost Art of Dungeon-Crawling

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

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


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.
Exactly. Sometimes I dont want to plan out a mid to large adventure and a short one shot distraction is welcomed by all.

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I feel like some folks in this thread are conflating The Dungeon and The Plot -- which is understandable considering how dungeons have been treated by WotC and Paizo on the last couple, well, decades.

The dungeon is The Setting. It's where The Plot happens. It's where the bad guy has taken refuge, or where the artifact is stashed, or where the ritual is preserved or where the God-corpse molders and sloughs off horrors that crawl, hungry, to the surface. Or, ALL of the above.

If you think of the dungeon as setting first, you can do so much more with it.

Want to have a good idea for a mega dungeon? Here is one I did a few times.

"Ladies and gentlemen, elves, orcs, dwarves, gnomes and halflings and all others! Welcome to the seventy-six delve into the Labyrinth of Hors. This year, four different groups will try to reach for the prized Golden orb of Karach. The first group to come out alive with the Orb will have one wish granted by our Archmagi, Valrick of Deneb. All contestants will be scried upon and the biggest events of the day will be shown to all by illusions in the great Arena of Hors.

This year, four groups are attempting the Labyrinth. 1st group is ..."

And every times, it was a blast for the group that tried it. 14 days to complete. And they had, of course, to beat an evil group, a neutral one and a good one. Sometimes they would fight an other group over one of the keys. In essence, it was a countdown with foes trying to get there before them. No need for ecology and I even did it with four different groups pitted against each others. Six different entrance/telepoter would make sure that they all started at different area. If they met, a fight would ensure as only one group was allowed to leave. All others would become beholden to the Archmage of the city for one year. It was a real blast. Players can be ery competitive.


I think this thread highlights what I was getting at in my recent thread about role vs roll play. I think the perception of popularity of one over the other is largely based on your personal experience, and trends come and go. Right now, a massive influx of players new to the game have been introduced due to the popularity of podcasts such as critical role, thus they prefer games that are heavy on roleplay and acting in character. Or they expect this because they have not been exposed to anything else. I have begun the practice of setting expectations for the type of game i run first thing- Role play is great, but if you dont like dungeon crawls you are in the wrong place. You are going to be bored and I am going to be frustrated with you telling me im not running the game right. I know some of you are thinking there is a happy medium between the two styles, but im finding that critters want critical role and will not accept that there are other ways to play. If your not happy here, you are just taking the space of some one else who will be. Find the game you want to play and I will run the game I and my players want to play.
I realize this sounds very blunt, but my point is that there is no one "right way" to play dnd, and setting expectations right of the bat is going to save everyone a lot of frustration and even resentment. Time is precious and an ongoing commitment to a game is a big give.

I love well-designed, sandboxy (as in, multiple routes) dungeon crawls.

One thing the good ones have -- multiple ways to approach and resolve each encounter. Most should not be only able to be solved by "kick in the door, kill the monsters, get the treasure". Sure, that's one way -- but clever negotiation/roleplay, stealth, and clever use of the environs should also be ways to "solve" encounters.


I know it's a common sentiment that the dungeon crawl is dead, but Pathfinder APs are FULL of medium to large sized dungeons. And Paizo is the largest third party publisher of D&D-esque content ever. So I think that there's still a lot of folks playing through dungeons. It's just no longer the exclusive mode of play that it was in the 70s.
I’ve run a bunch of Paizo APs (see here), and I’m not sure I can agree. There are plenty of dungeons, but they lack the qualities being discussed here. Even in a dungeon-centric AP like Shattered Star, they’re still fairly linear. PCs are delving into dungeons because the story sent them there, and they have some story stuff to accomplish. In PF2, especially with some of the early APs, it’s a controversial statement even suggesting that you can have creatures react dynamically to the PCs (due to the spike in difficulty and the expectation that of course the PCs should win every fight).


Did dungeons ever really go away?
We know they were alive and well throughout the 70s and 80s as the classic form of adventuring. In the 2e era, especially at the tail-end, we got some pretty big ones like the high level Labyrinth of Madness, The Night Below (billed as "the Ultimate Dungeon Adventure"), and the Undermountain boxed sets. 3e was highly touted as "return to the dungeons," with a Greyhawk setting default, and emphasis on miniatures, traps, and tactical play.
4e also kept the dungeons alive with modules like Keep on the Shadowfell. I'd say that the dungeon was the default assumption of that edition.
5e has had numerous adventures featuring dungeons, whether greatest hits compilations like "Tales of the Yawning Portal" or megadungeons like "Dungeon of the Mad Mage."
So let me ask, when did we ever stop playing dungeons? Was there even a five year period without a lot of dungeon content?


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.
Excellent advice, but, I would add a bit to this one. There's no problem with having a bit of "dead space" in a dungeon. Rooms that are mostly empty, at least of encounters/traps. For one, it allows you to break up encounters - if encounters are too close together, they tend to get "chained" and can drastically ramp up the lethality of the encounter. For another, it allows a space for the PC's to rest, from time to time. You don't have to keep the pressure on all the time.

And, as was mentioned, an "empty" room need not be empty - it can be decorated or whatnot and act as a bit of foreshadowing for what is coming later, or a bit of exposition to add color to the dungeon.


I quite like the engineering dungeons book from troll lord games. It's initial section is on randomly generating the history of the dungeon which looks at the dungeons purpose (shelter, economic, prison, etc), who built it, and where it was built. Also size, number of entrances, and how old the dungeon is. This doesn't mean that an old dwarven mine built two centuries ago is still being used for that purpose, but it does give you a groundwork to base the general look and feel of your dungeon. Even if it was abandoned 1 and a half centuries beforehand, you're still likely to come across tools and other items from when it was in use, gives some good dressing for the dungeon.

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