Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
Designing a dungeon for D&D

I’ve been playing D&D twice now in the past weeks as a DM using a small dungeon of up to 10 rooms, built in 3D printed tiles. I would like to do some more of that, but I am out of ideas for interesting dungeon rooms. I’ve been looking for ideas via Google, and noticed that a lot of the suggestions I can find on the internet share a common flaw: They don’t share the fun with the players, they are only (possibly) fun for the DM.

I talked earlier about decision points. Many of the suggested ideas have those decision points; but the reasoning behind what happens remains completely obscured from the players. For me as DM it is always important to look at any dungeon room both from the perspective of the DM, and from the perspective of the players. If the DM information says that a room has this or that function, I also wonder how the players are supposed to find out. What do they see when they come in? How can the consequences of their actions enlighten them to what is really going on? In the stuff I read these questions frequently aren’t answered: As DM you get told what the room does if the players behave in a certain way, but not how they can find out what to do. In extreme cases the players are supposed to do random stuff until a door opens and they’ll never find out why.

In his Theory of Fun Raph Koster explains that fun for players is the result of understanding game elements. Yes, being able to open the treasure chest is important for a D&D player, but if there is a puzzle or trap involved, it is more important that the player *understands* what this challenge is about and how to solve it. A dungeon location with a rich backstory but no way for the players to find out about it is a wasted opportunity. I’ll keep looking for better material for my dungeons, but it is hard to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Any suggestions?


Knowing a little more about how you define an “interesting” dungeon for players might be helpful.

Full of tactical tools for combat? Containing obstacles or scenery that influence the game mechanically? Weighed down by thematic volumes of lore or setting information? Loaded to the brim with puzzles and traps that make the players move at a crawl to stay safe? Ever-evolving, constantly changing or with random encounters that make the same room feel different on revisiting or backtracking? Crammed full of valuable loot and magical items that will make the players walking weapons of mass destruction? “Solvable” with multiple solutions?

(Though players can do that all on their own with a GM willing to give them some leeway. Mine went back to town to buy rat poison and dropped it in a kitchen cauldron feeding the orc quarters... I had to improvise room descriptions on the fly to somewhat debilitate about half of every orc group per room, not to mention account for the week’s or so journey back and forth effect on the rooms they had already visited.)

For general tips, this article seems helpful:
Anything beyond just having monsters and treasures. Preferably stuff that makes players think, so not just a secret door or hidden trap for which detection already solves everything. Tactical tools for combat are great.
How about providing players with an informer such as a guide, defector or poorly drawn map. Then you can provide some partial information about the GM's "fun"?
I like Andrew's idea, or how about a library that they have to do a little researching before venturing forth. The library itself could almost form a hub for other dungeons and adventures.
Not really a room idea, more of a full dungeon idea to make something similar to this Skyrim adventure mod, one of the best in my opinion:

This will require a few things, if you are up for it:

A - a bit of prep work on your part to "translate" the story to D&D and make bits that work for a gaming table, on top of making a map and the other prep work you'd usually do.
B - players that aren't just focused on combat as there's very little combat here.

If you are interested but don't want to download/play/watch it, I have a written play through that you can use to get more info.

You'd only need to read posts # 82 to 90 on that list. :)

Also I do have pictures on my blog, just giving you a heads up because I know you dislike that sort of thing.

If I think of more "room" based stuff I'll post again. :)
I've thought of another on my daily walk, though it probably needs refinement.

Rumors are someone in the dungeon is trying to destroy the world (or just the nearby city). This particular case involves a growing sphere of annihilation (modified from the usual variety). It can't be controlled and it just slowly keeps growing.

Pieces of a rod of cancellation are available in the dungeon, and if restored fully the rod can be thrown in to negate the sphere, making both vanish.

Onto the "room"! The main underground room is a massive chasm with rickety and degrading wooden bridges allow passage above it. The pitch black bottom is ... not just darkness. That is actually the overgrown sphere. There should be combat above it, focused on knocking adventurers in (to certain death). It doesn't have to be a hard fight, just a single caster with appropriate wands should be troublesome enough - especially if the caster can levitate or just knows where to stand (and shoot bridges). Tweak as required.

Obviously at least one piece of the rod of cancellation should be located in a pain in the butt location right above the sphere, forcing someone to cross the bridges or become creative.

For bonus difficulty (for you Mr GM), make the caster a little girl who was just severely abused by the "evil city" and happened onto a cache of powerful magical stuff. All the dungeon structures just happened to already be there. She unleashed the sphere as payback on the people she hates and is willing to suicide for it.

You'll need to craft some really scum people to make this child want to destroy everything. That (hopefully) might make it more interesting if people decide to try save her too rather than just having an "evil group" or "evil dude" that needs killing.
Note: if going with the child idea, she doesn't have to be the combat above the chasm. Maybe something that flies lives up there. And all those bridges? They are just the top part of an underground ruin the kid found all this powerful stuff in.

Maybe she knows there's a cancellation rod lying around somewhere, but she doesn't have to be the one who hid all the pieces. Maybe flying thing likes shiney stuff and put one piece of the rod in a very visible spot in its nest.

Not sure what the flying thing could be though. For instance a dragon or beholder wouldn't be stupid enough to hang around a sphere of annihilation. Much less one that grows. :P
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