With Into The Dungeon I went over reasons why GMs and their players might want to consider a dungeon delve. Today I’ll be doing Part I of how to craft your own dungeons – something that is, honestly, harder than it sounds if you want it to be something comprehensible. Randomly generated dungeons like the ones you’d get from the tables in the back of the old Dungeon Master Guides are an ugly mish-mash of nonsense. You can do better.
How long is this dungeon going to need to be? The absolute first question you need to answer when you want to build your own dungeon is how long you want your group to be in it. Will they be going in for a single encounter to deal with a threat or find a treasure and then leave? Will they be in there for an entire game session, working through the hazards of the dungeon to the eventual end, possibly taking the time to rest? Is it going to occupy a significant chunk of the campaign, such as if they take on the Maze of Baphomet, the Horned Lord of the Abyss? Or is the entire campaign going to be built around delving into this dungeon, with the campaign closing out once the PCs have discovered the secrets, looted the treasures, and defeated the dangers that lurk inside?
Dungeons are built with a purpose. Unlike the Adventure Pits you find in a lot of video games and old modules, a good dungeon starts with thinking about what the purpose of it. Was it built as a mundane prison? A treasure vault? A temple to some forgotten (or not so forgotten) god? Did it have just one purpose, or multiple? Maybe one portion was built as a prison by human hands, only to have them break into a structure hewn by deep-dwelling kobolds as a home.
The reason this matters is that the purpose of a given section of a dungeon will suggest a great deal about what the players might find there – both in terms of rewards and ‘dressing’ to give the rooms flavor and feel. A prison dug out by orc barbarians will have a much different feel than a treasure vault crafted by an elven king or a vault to hold arcane experiment made by an archmage.
How old is the dungeon, and is it still in the hands of the builders? If the dungeon is still relatively new and in the lands of the people who built it originally, the contents will be 100% theirs. On the other hand, a dungeon that’s been abandoned and left to the wilderness for centuries probably still has a few things from the builders inside, but time and nature will have changed much of the interior. Wild beasts and strange abominations may walk the halls, and leakage – both natural and not – will have changed the internal structure.
The dungeon’s age also impacts the treasures inside; sure, they may find a sack of gold coins, but if those coins are a different size and weight than those of the countries they call home, they may have trouble using them until they find someone to melt them down into trade bars. On the other hand, a sack of only a few coins may turn out to be incredibly valuable if they’re coins from the predecessor to a modern kingdom, giving them value as collectors’ items well in excess of their material value.
The question of direction. Most dungeons are of a given size and organized around levels; it’s sensible enough when you recall that the early dungeons of tabletop gaming were sketched out in pencil on graph paper. Going down, level by level, is an acceptable trope of the dungeon delve. Rather than build down, the creators of the dungeon may have dug out, building rooms a short distance under the relatively soft surface material. The present entrance to the dungeon might even be one of the once-buried rooms, exposed by erosion and broken open by events in the world, while the original entrance may be sealed by a collapse.
Alternately, they may have built up and created a tower, with the most valuable – or dangerous – things stored at the top. Captives in a tower prison would need to either find a way to get down the exterior surface, a way to fly, or fight their way down through multiple floors of guards; a treasure vault tower would likely store the most precious things a few floors below the top, in case of thieves trying to break in through the roof, while the floors above might be housing for the guards and perhaps some careful traps for the unwary.
The size of the dungeon defines the danger it can hold. We tend to think of dungeons as huge, sprawling affairs; Rappan Athuk and the World’s Largest Dungeon both reinforce this kind of thinking, as do the old megadungeons of early games, like Undermountain. A dungeon can be as small as a few rooms underneath a secure building, however. You’d be unlikely to find any great evils locked in such a dungeon, but you could still find someone’s stashed treasure from their days as a thief, or the pile of bones from the victims of a dabbling demon-worshiper, complete with an imp looking to find a way to break free from its master.
Most dungeons won’t be the kind to hold world-endangering threats or the lost treasures of gods; those are likely to either be at the end of truly immense labyrinths or small but hidden well away from the world. If you want to build a dungeon with a campaign finale at the end, keep in mind that size definitely matters for these things.
That’s all for today; tomorrow I’ll talk about the setting of the dungeon and how a few details can make all the difference between a generic stomp through an adventure and a delve into a creepy and dangerous place that might have best been left undisturbed.