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If you could hop into a time machine and travel back to the ’80s to see what kind of Dungeons & Dragons game they were playing back then, you would probably find their PCs kicking doors down, looking for traps, and come back full of loot: they were most likely having a dungeon crawl.
There’s a reason why the game is called Dungeons & Dragons. Once upon a time, exploring a dungeon was actually most of the game, and it was a ton of fun. So, what was their key to making great dungeons?
The secret to making engaging dungeons is a great premise. Hook players right away with an awesome concept that sells the idea of venturing into the dungeon. A great premise is tailor-made to fit player preferences and will guide the whole design process.
Nowadays, in our contemporary 5th edition environment, dungeons have a retro feel. They feel a little out of place in the landscape of sprawling, epic quests, personal sagas, and murderous villains.
D&D is so much more! I hear you say. Yes. Yes, it is. But here I am, advocating for a comeback of dungeons in your home game, telling you why designing and running your own underground complex can be a blast. As an example, here’s one of my more recent dungeons.
Here we go.
What are the Fundamentals of Dungeon Design?
By traditional standards, a dungeon is any kind of underground complex. Simple as that.
You’ll notice that in this loose definition, there’s a lot of room to work with. Let’s make it more specific. D&D has its roots deeply embedded in mythology, legends, folklore, and, most of all, pulp fantasy.
Think about the classic adventure locations of those stories. In Greek mythology, the hero Perseus, holding his trusty mirror-polished shield, ventures deep into the Gorgons’ cave to slay Medusa.
When the Fellowship of the Ring is looking for an alternate path to cross the Misty Mountains, Gandalf reluctantly guides them through the Mines of Moria.
Lastly (and maybe most importantly of all), where does Indiana Jones go looking for his golden idles, Arks of the Covenant, and Holy Grails? More on that, real history is chock-full of examples of dangerous expeditions to remote lands to retrieve lost treasure.
These are the kind of examples that inspired the D&D dungeon. What do they all have in common?
- They have a history: These are ancient places—people lived and died there. There’s a reason why they were built in the first place;
- They are full of treasure: Why should I risk my Character’s (PC’s) life by going in there? Because I’ll come out rich! Dungeons should be full of gold, jewels, ancient artifacts, and ancient knowledge (just as or more valuable than gemstones!);
- They are dangerous: Let’s remember that D&D is an action game. A good third of the core rules are dedicated to monsters and how to kill them. Adding to that, there’s a reason why no one has come looting these places before. It’s usually because they don’t survive, adding to the loot to be found!
These are the core assumptions of the classic D&D dungeon, and they are cultural. But, remember, you don’t have to follow them verbatim. Rules are there to be broken, and by their very nature, a dungeon can be filled with endless possibilities.
Dungeon Master (DM) Logistics
Now that we have set the cultural place that dungeons inhabit in D&D’s tradition, let’s talk logistics. Dungeons are useful tools for all DMs, but especially so for beginners.
Firstly, dungeons are confined spaces. This limits the range of possible player shenanigans. At first glance, this may look like a drawback. On closer inspection, it’s much easier to manage a party in a limited space than in an open town where anything can happen.
As a new DM, which situation sounds easier to handle: 3 possible pathways/doors or every cardinal direction. Limiting choices to something more manageable is wise for beginners.
This means that the DM’s prep will be much more focused. No more wasting time preparing one-off encounters that your players may or may not ever find.
On top of that, dungeons carry with them an underlying implication. This may come as a surprise, but dungeons are underground. Being confined in a closed space, deep into the earth, with limited possibilities of escape in case of danger—this builds tension and investment. It makes every encounter much scarier—every step deeper underground is further proof of courage.
Moving on, let’s talk about the second and third big advantages of dungeons: they are modular and recyclable. Modularity means that the same dungeon may be easily located in any part of your world. It’s portable and could be implemented as a key part of a larger adventure, a one-off game, or just a side quest.
In my opinion, the biggest advantage of preparing a dungeon is that once you’ve finished it, it’s yours, and you can replay it as many times as you want. Each time allows you to add to it, perfecting it after each run. In this way, it can be a work of literature that you created. You can recycle and refine it with each play.
Now, let’s be an egotistical DM for a minute. I know that you’ve probably got a whole folder on your computer filled with all the lore of your world. We both know that nobody wants to sit there and have it painstakingly explained to them… and here, dungeons come in handy.
If your players want to venture deep into some forgotten tomb, this is the opportunity to show off all your work. What civilization built it? What were their beliefs? What did they put there as a defense? What treasures may lie in there?
On that note, let’s talk crunch. By design, 5e assumes that magic items can’t be bought. You’ll surely have noticed by now that there’s no price tag attached to a magic item’s description in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG).
The table on page 135 gives a ballpark to guess how much an item may cost based on its rarity. The designers made this choice for a specific reason: you shouldn’t buy magic items; you should find them. You should gear up, go out in the wilderness, venture into a dungeon, and come out covered with magic equipment!
If you disagree and want some help working on a magic shop, we have a post on that here.
Now, let’s go deep into the nitty-gritty of dungeon design.
What Makes for a Good Dungeon Premise?
To simply put it, the premise is the central idea and conflict that dictates the tone and feel of your dungeon. Think of it as an elevator pitch for a movie. The premise is what you will tell your friends to get them on board with the idea of having a dungeon crawl for your next session.
With a good premise, you are already establishing the game’s tone—something that will make your life easier when you sit down to DM. It will manage expectations and allow your players to have a say in case they don’t like certain ideas.
It doesn’t have to be a sophisticated presentation. You’re just pitching a game to your friends. Also, pitching can reveal itself as an art form in and of itself, something surprisingly hard to master.
Don’t be scared to piggyback your ideas using common language and pop culture references, as these help to translate the amazing image in your head.
Example 1: One of the dungeons I’m working on right now is an “Alien meets American Horror Story: Asylum meets the Exorcist“ scenario.
That short sentence should already paint in your mind a certain vibe. A player can already expect a specific atmosphere from something like that (and if they are absolutely not into horror, they can stop you right there).
But that will spoil my dungeon! Players will know what to expect! That’s the point; you want them to expect something and get hyped.
Look at it as a movie trailer. Sure, it will reveal some things, but it will also get you in the theatre.
Sometimes a catchy title is enough. Last summer, one of the most appreciated dungeons that I played with my group was titled “The Mound of the Candlemaker.” Who the hell is the Candlemaker? Is it a big deal? They were so hyped.
Example 2: Now that you understand how powerful the premise is to manage expectations, you can use it to softly pull the rug from under the players’ feet. Last summer, I pitched a game like “The Thing, with a pinch more of HP Lovecraft.” If that doesn’t get you tense, I don’t know what will.
They entered the dungeon expecting something horrible, and then the dungeon appeared absolutely normal… at first. In the end, I delivered on those Lovecraftian expectations, and those first quiet, unremarkable rooms enhanced the experience.
Remember: the premise must fit the playstyle of your group. You probably already know that you shouldn’t feed a deep political intrigue to a party of half-orc barbarians. It shouldn’t be much different with your dungeons.
Here are some quick tips that should give you an idea:
- If your party is combat-focused, give them something to fight! Nothing is sadder than a fighter who doesn’t have anything to fight all evening. This isn’t necessarily a class-related argument. Some players just love fights—make them happy. As a player, I love a good fight because it rivets my attention to the game, especially when the game has been in a lull;
- Some players like to be challenged. It’s not the encounter itself that’s exciting; it’s the fact that it was difficult, dangerous, and deadly! Surviving that gives a feeling of accomplishment;
- Always imbed intrigue. Even a small mystery gets you a long way. Some players are surprisingly motivated by a good mystery. Even those who are not a Sherlock or Detective Poirot may be just curious to find out what happened;
- Encourage Exploration. Some parties like to poke stuff and play with strange objects just to see what happens. Don’t let them down! These are the same players who have a good laugh when their PC gets cursed. Later in this article, I’ll give some tips strictly on dungeon design, and putting “stuff to poke & prod” is one of those.
- You, the DM, are a player, too. Don’t forget to put the stuff you like in your dungeon. Remember: if you are excited to play, your players will be, too.
Now, let’s go over why your premise will dictate every other aspect of your dungeon, starting with size and scope.
Frighten Your Players
In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.
Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.
“Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.
For less than a Starbucks coffee, gift a thrilling night for you and your crew;
Check out Weeping Walls, our haunted house intended to fit into any campaign.
How to Size a Dungeon
Now that you have a captivating premise, consider what might enhance your playing experience. A long, slow, and tense crawl or a short and claustrophobic hit-and-run? A large, sprawling system of caves or a smaller, more curated cavern?
The size will dictate the rhythm of your adventuring party’s expedition. Will they need to take multiple short (or long) rests to finish it? Will they always have the opportunity to go back and camp outside the entrance?
Here are some numbers to give you a ballpark of what size best fits your idea:
- Tiny Dungeons: Around 3 to 5 rooms, they are so short that they can be completed in a single gaming session. They need to be punchy and straight to the point. Don’t underestimate them: it can be challenging to boil down your ideas just to a few rooms. If you are interested, there’s a whole philosophy around the five-room dungeon. An example of a tiny dungeon is the now ultra-famous Delian Tomb by Matt Colville.
- Small Dungeons: From 6 to 12+ rooms, this is a completely arbitrary range but should give you an idea. A dungeon this size should take around one or two full sessions to complete, and they’re usually (not always) only one level deep. This is a good size for beginners. It gives enough room to let your ideas breathe without becoming a daunting task to fill the map. Cragmaw Hideout (from Lost Mines of Phandelver) is a good example of a small dungeon.
- Average Dungeons: Around 30 rooms, this is your classic dungeon from the days of old. It will take more than a couple of sessions to fully explore it. They usually have more than one entrance, more than one level, and often house a couple of inside factions. The infamous Tomb of Horrors (that I love deeply) is 33 rooms. It takes some time to design a dungeon this big. My advice is to leave it for your best ideas, those you have thought about for some time.
- Large Dungeons: A large dungeon is anywhere from 30 to 100 rooms. These are the dungeons of epic quests, taking many sessions to complete. They can be hard to DM, with many moving parts, levels, factions, and enemies. Many official WotC products house dungeons of this size: Tomb of Annihilation is over 80 rooms and 6 levels deep.
- Megadungeons: At 100 rooms or more, you’re starting to peer into the realm of the megadungeon. A megadungeon is a whole different beast to tackle. It has hundreds of rooms, goes many levels deep, and can take literal years in real-time to complete. This is a task only the most experienced players, DMs, and designers should be dealing with. My all-time favorite Megadungeon is Greg Gillespie’s excellent Barrowmaze. A more known example is the Dungeon of the Mad Mage in the Forgotten Realms.
As I just stated, size will dictate how much real-time you’ll spend designing your dungeon and how many sessions it will take to complete. In my years of playing and DMing, I always used this rule of thumb to evaluate how long will it take to complete a dungeon:
An average-sized group (~4 players), during an average session (~3.5), will most likely explore 5 rooms and have 3 fights.
Now you should have a good premise to pitch and an idea of scope. Now it’s time to put pen to paper and start drawing a map.
Mapping Out Your Dungeon
I know that there are probably some map-making enthusiasts reading this. You should always remember that one of the best aspects of D&D is that you can play it just with a pencil and a sheet of paper. If you wanted, you don’t even need the core rulebooks.
That said, to draw a functional dungeon map, you don’t need to be an artist. You are the only one who needs to understand your messy scribbles, so long as you can convey them to your players.
Still, I’ve gathered some online resources to help you map your dungeon. But first, a side note:
Resist the temptation to print out a random map and start asking, “what do I put in all these rooms?” Room filling and map designing go hand-in-hand. Before even starting to draw, go back to your pitch, take a sheet of paper, and start writing on it all the ideas that come to mind.
After a short brainstorm, you should have several ideas of what to put in your dungeon so that you can position rooms accordingly.
- Donjon’s Random Dungeon Generator. Most everyone knows it; everyone likes it. Donjon randomly generates one-level-deep dungeon maps that are based on your preferences. This is a great tool, but it comes with many drawbacks. These maps are really random: rooms are just sprinkled on the page, and their positioning doesn’t make sense. Also, it encourages the “room-filling” page-staring that I noted above. Good if you are in a hurry, but we can do better.
- One Page Dungeon by Watabou. One of my absolute favorites to start designing. Like Donjon, Watabou generates a random map. These are a bit more consistent and prettier to look at. On the other hand, you have no real control over what will appear on the screen: you’ll be refreshing the page a lot to get something that will fit your idea. Also, as the name suggests, this tool was designed for One Page Dungeons, so the size will always be rather small.
- Dungeon Scrawl. If you want complete control over your finished product, I’m gladly introducing you to Dungeon Scrawl. This site is a full-online editor for making Dyson-styled maps. The layout is intuitive and easy to learn. Go check it out; you won’t be disappointed.
Advanced Map Making Tips for Dungeons
These websites will give you a good canvas to start your design, but I highly encourage you to edit and improve what they deliver. To help you with that, here are some advanced map-making tips. Always remember: map layout and gameplay are deeply connected.
- Have more than one entrance. One of the most famous tips in dungeon design is to have multiple entrances. This encourages exploration and rewards curious players from the get-go. One obvious access point and one (or more) secret passages also add a tactical side to your encounters: it means new entrances for reinforcements to come in, or possible escape routes, just in case. This tip can be hard to implement in smaller dungeons, but you can still do it: make the secondary entrance a secret one. Secret doorways, abandoned shafts, cracks in the walls, and decrepit wells work great!
- Jaquay your dungeon. “Jaquaying the dungeon” refers to a staple article of dungeon design and roughly translates to “avoid dead ends, make circular paths.” It can be kind of frustrating for your party to retrace their steps once they reach a dead end. Try having your rooms more connected by allowing circular paths so that your PCs can always “move forward.” This will give them a stronger sense of progress. Additionally, Jennell Jaquay’s system adds replayability to your dungeons: different groups will take different routes.
- The empty room rule. One every roughly ten rooms in your dungeon should be empty. This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing inside, but that there’s nothing to meaningfully interact with. A room like that signals to your players that this is a good place to rest, somewhere they can hide, where the inhabitants of the dungeon don’t come often. Do not overdo it. Many Mega-Dungeons suffer from too many empty rooms, and nobody wants to explore an empty dungeon.
- Keep it moving. Avoid stillness as much as you can. With stillness, I mean the “everything stays in its room” scenario. Monsters are smart: if they hear something, they’ll come investigating; they go on patrols; they retreat, they set ambushes. The well-known wandering monsters concept is the simplest example of this tip (more on that here). Your dungeon should feel alive.
- The two exits rule. Heavily related to Jaquay’s system, your rooms should strive to have one entrance and two exits. This means that your party will have to make some decisions during navigation, helps to make circular paths, and, as you’ve already guessed, improves replayability. Do not apply this to every room: having to make choices each time gets frustrating quickly.
- Hallways are rooms. Well, not in the strict sense of the term, but you should use corridors as an active part of the dungeon. Do not leave them just as loading screens between the “relevant” rooms. They are the place for claustrophobic ambushes, traps, exposition via paintings and murals. Be creative!
- Secret rooms. Classic, but you already knew that. Put at least one secret area. It rewards exploration, makes for a good opportunity to deploy riddles, and hides some powerful treasure. Discovering a secret path makes your rogues and rangers feel special.
With all those tips out of the way, now we’ll tackle encounter design. Let’s see how our map layout will interact with the players when Initiative is finally rolled.
How to Design Dungeon Encounters
In the now well-established tradition of continually referencing our premise, let’s start asking ourselves: what’s the most effective way to deploy monsters in our dungeon?
Think about the monsters’ natures and read the flavor text in the Monster Manual. Goblins and Kobolds will use group tactics, ambushes, and the knowledge of their den to gain the upper hand; dragons will wait deeply nested in their lair or will attack right away; a brigand’s camp may have fortifications and troops on patrol.
What follows is a rough categorization of the kinds of encounters I recommend thinking about while designing your dungeon crawl. This is by no means a complete list, but it should gather the most common circumstances:
As the name so clearly suggests, room fights are “set piece” fights in dungeon rooms. What does this imply? Enemies should have the advantage. This is their home; they are accustomed to fighting in this place. Monsters know how to capitalize on their advantages.
Here are a few tips to consider when designing a room encounter:
- Use the environment to your advantage. Pillars, chasms, fountains, and pits. Use the furniture in the room as cover and take advantage of environmental hazards to limit the PC’s maneuverability.
- Use elevation. Stairs, balconies, and scaffoldings. Keep your squishy casters out of reach from fighters and barbarians. Elevation compels your players to use movement tactically: do I attack right away the nearest enemy, or do I take my time to get to that dangerous caster?
- Take note of escape routes. Most of the time, enemies are not complete morons. Don’t make them fight to the death—use the two exits rule I discussed earlier to leave an open escape path. Exploit the advantage of your Jaquayed/circular design to flank the heroes when they least expect it.
As stated earlier, hallways and corridors shouldn’t just be a loading screen between rooms. Here the main advantage for your monsters is the chance to spring effective ambushes. PCs will have less space to position.
Here are few more tips for designing hallway fights:
- Their numbers will count for nothing. As with the famous Battle of Thermopylae (From 300), numbers don’t matter in a narrow corridor. Place a big, fat enemy in front of the party when they can’t surround it, and you’ve doubled your effectiveness. Your players will not hesitate to do the same when attacked by a swarm of ravaging goblins.
- Divide and conquer. Divide et Impera. Drop a portcullis in the middle of the party, spring a pit trap, divide them… and attack! Even a mundane encounter will become a death trap if your party can’t work together.
- Stab at the rear. Another advantage of Jaquaying your dungeon? Enemies won’t just come from the front; they can also attack from the rear! Don’t let wizards and archers stay safe behind that big meat shield of a paladin. Once in a while, this will make them panic.
Finally, we tackle the age-old technique of random encounters. What are they for?
As the name suggests, a random encounter is any kind of unexpected meeting, typically with monsters, determined randomly; in dungeons, they can be thought of as wandering monsters. Traditionally, this would be done by rolling on a table. They serve many purposes:
- Keep the PCs vigilant. It bears repeating: a dungeon should be a dangerous place. The threat of random encounters will keep the PCs on their toes and make them take turns resting.
- Make your dungeon feel alive. Enemies should move around for their own reasons and investigate strange noises.
- Test resource management. Do we take a rest now and risk a random encounter, or do we keep moving? 5e is fundamentally built on resource management: spell slots, rages per day, and sorcery points—each character has something to keep track of. Resting and risking a random encounter puts even more stress on this side of the game.
Quick Notes on Traps and Riddles
By now, you should have guessed that we are just barely scratching the surface of dungeon design. Each subject I talked about so far can (and should) intertwine with any other part of your dungeon – all of which is under the vigilant eye of your founding premise.
Traps and riddles are not too different, and since I don’t want to make you reread everything twice, I’ll go straight to the point.
In a certain way, traps are not much different from random encounters. They serve the same purpose: they encourage vigilance, make the enemies seem intelligent, and consume the party’s resources.
Let’s go over the main types of traps and their usages:
- “Pay-hit points” traps: You step on a pressure plate, you make a roll, and you take some damage. This is the lamest kind of trap. In practice, you are paying a ticket with hit points to go on with the dungeon. There are rarely consequences with this kind of trap, and they get old quickly. Put just one or two in the dungeon, depending on size.
- Setback traps: These are nasty. A portcullis slams in a corridor, cutting the party into two groups. A shaft separates one of the PCs to a lower level. A trapdoor makes one fall into a pit. These traps do little to no damage but have high consequences. They can be a setup for an ambush or waste the party’s time, making them vulnerable to random encounters. Deploy them smartly.
- Set piece traps: These are the big ones that can be an entire encounter by themselves. These are your garbage compactor in the Death Star, Indiana Jones’ spiked chamber in Temple of Doom, anything from the Saw franchise (please don’t use those in your game). To overcome this kind of trap, the PCs need to find some inventive way—a roll alone is not enough. Add a combat encounter into the mix, and you’ve got something special in your hands.
Riddles are hard. Not just in a literal way. It’s difficult to find a riddle that’s just hard enough to be fun without it being frustrating or trivial. Riddles are one of those things for which you need to be aware of your audience. Do your players like them? Don’t put them there “just because.”
Concerning riddles, I only have one tip: make them optional. Don’t hide a big plot point or the solution to the dungeon behind a riddle. What if your players don’t know how to solve it? Nobody likes to be fed the answer.
Make sure to employ them like side quests; they’re there if you like them. It’s not a big deal if they ignore them. Just be sure to put some juicy treasure behind a riddle if your players solve it.
But if you’re like me, I don’t always have the time to make my own puzzles and traps, which is where our friends over at Dungeon Vault come in. Seriously, $20 for all puzzles, or $30 for his entire catalogue? It’s a steal.
Looking to challenge your players?
Puzzles and Riddles can be tricky! Too easy and they’re pointless; Too hard and it’s pure frustration. What is a DM to do?
Well, our friends over at Dungeon Vault have an assortment of puzzles, riddles, and tokens to enhance your gaming experience. They even have a murder mystery and a political intrigue system!
For easy-to-use resources for any D&D game, check out the selections at Dungeon Vault!
How to DM a Dungeon Crawl
Here we are, at the end of our journey. Yet, all the words spent to reach this point are nothing but an introduction. Designing anything well is a complicated process that requires practice and time. I hope all these tips will make your work towards designing your first dungeon much easier.
Now let’s assume you’ve got a great underground complex in your hands—how should you DM it?
If you’re an attentive reader, you’ll surely remember what we talked about at the beginning of this article about the advantages of dungeons. Your general prep is already reduced compared to an “outdoor adventure.” I don’t know about you, but less prep time is always a plus in my book!
At this point, you can start working on the dungeon’s in-world context: put plot hooks in the game world so that the PCs will know of its existence. Outline the landscape around the site: what kind of encounters can be found? What’s the terrain like? Are there any NPCs?
About DMing the room-to-room: keep your notes simple. A couple of bullet points per room will do the trick. If you need it, write down a sentence or two of the description to help you out.
Take into consideration the rhythm of your game. This is honestly the hardest aspect to master when DMing: how fast or slow things are moving.
Keep in mind that dungeons usually have quite detailed descriptions compared to room size. It will become natural for your players to move a bit slower than usual since they’ll most likely take their time to inspect, look for traps, and search for secret doors in every room.
I recommend learning when to tap the gas and when it’s okay to take some time. Sometimes, as has happened to me, it can take the party ten minutes of intense discussion to decide how to handle opening a simple door!
Use the threat of random encounters or build a time limit into the dungeon to keep the progress going. The cultists will sacrifice the hostages if we aren’t quick enough!
Now that you’re armed with knowledge, you’re ready to design your first dungeon. Just don’t forget to bring a ten-foot pole; you’ll thank me later.
- Dungeons are a traditional staple of D&D, having their roots deep in mythology and pulp fantasy.
- Dungeons come with built-in assumptions: they have a history, they’re full of treasure, and they’re dangerous.
- If you’re a DM, they have many advantages: they are modular and recyclable. They are excellent containers for your lore. For an example, you can check out one of my dungeons here.
- To build a good dungeon, you need a strong premise: an idea, a theme, or a concept that will guide every aspect of your project.
- Starting from your premise, decide early on the scope (or size) of your dungeon. It will dictate much more than just the number of rooms.
- Nailing room layout is crucial when encouraging the gameplay you pictured in your premise. Use a Jaquayed (Nonlinear) design, many entrances and exits, and keep things moving by avoiding dead-ends to make your dungeon feel more alive.
- Study what kind of monsters you are deploying: will they fight better in an open room, a narrow corridor, or as a random encounter?
- Pay attention to how you place traps and riddles to get the most out of them.
- When you’re prepping, keep your notes short and simple. Bullet notes are the easiest way to go.
- Be mindful of the rhythm of your game—dungeon crawls tend to be slower-paced. Learn when it’s the right time to light a fire under your PCs (maybe literally).