Dungeon Design: The Basics

Today, I’m going to talk a little bit about designing a dungeon or other adventure location, and what needs to go into it to get a good experience out of it. This won’t cover details like mapping the area or designing encounters, just the basics of the design work.

Generally, dungeon design’s basic steps can be broken down into Who, Why, and How; each of these is best answered before you do anything more important on it, although it’s always possible to grab a map you doodled idly and apply the steps to it to backfill the whole thing.

Who is actually two questions; the first is “who the heck created/occupied this space?” This can be a simple one to answer – it was created for the queen who had the castle built, and her descendants and staff occupy it now. It can also be a complicated answer – it was originally created by a wizard as a research facility under his tower, but since his disappearance the place has become home to a number of strange creatures; this includes his former apprentice, who was transformed into a catfolk when she got drunk and tried magic beyond her abilities.

The second who is “who wants to send the characters into this place?” This can likewise have a nice and simple answer – the family of a prisoner in the castle’s dungeon wants the PCs to get in and rescue a wrongfully imprisoned member of the family before sie gets executed. Or it can be complicated – the apprentice’s brother wants the PCs to find her, but their father wants the PCs to find him the rumored treasure the wizard had hidden in the dungeon with no interest in his no-longer-human daughter, and the constabulary would like them not to go in because they might cause the whole thing to explode.

Why is a simple one, usually. “Why does this place exist?” It’s a question that should inform the majority of your decisions in the layout of an area; a temple will have a different design from a fort, which will in turn be different from a cave network or kobold warren. You should also include “why are the players going here?” in part of that decision, because that should inform the layout and design. You don’t want to make things too easy, or make a layout that has no critical path to it.

How, finally, is both “how was this built?” and “how are the players going to succeed, optimally?” Consider if it was carved out of the rock, dug into the earth and then lined with beams and cut stone, or built up from the ground. Was magic involved, or was it all manual labor by living creatures? Did the designer sneak any secrets in for their own use? And how are players going to get through this if they’re efficient (they won’t be), lucky (they won’t be), and clever (they might)? Figure out how you’re going to lay out any necessary clues and hints to show them the critical way through versus any optional components.

Answer these questions, and you’ll be well-set for laying down the map and encounters for any single adventure location. Fail to do so, and… Well, you can look around and find plenty of adventures, both homebrewed and officially published, that didn’t consider any of this.

In the not-too-distant future, you can expect to have me go into more detail on designing a dungeon/adventure locale, but for today that’s all!

Dungeon Design: The Basics

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