Originally I was going to tell you how to make an amazing dungeon from scratch, but there is too much to cover with designing dungeons in D&D. Instead, to get the basics
When designing dungeons n D&D you need to invest players, have a history/purpose, make every room a scene, and make a living, reactive environment.
How many times have you run through a dungeon that has encounters, traps, and intense situations only to rest in a room and not be interrupted? How many times has a dungeons template been completely ripped off of a video game and the monsters are static?
Dungeons and Dragons make the world and universe alive, anything can happen! Why then do most dungeons feel stale, and how can you break the mold?
You need to have a strong story as Sly Flourish mentions, but you need to do a little bit more. Yes, the players are going to the dungeon in order to stop evil baddie 3b, but what is the end result if they do not succeed? Why should they care?
Your players need to have some personal stake in this. Can you make this dungeon personal? Think of your player’s backstories and make something revolving around a core character concept. If Johashee is after her bandit dad, why not make him the centerpiece of this dungeon?
What seems better?
The bandit lord has been harassing the local townspeople and has taken up residence in the abandoned
Your father is running his gang from an abandoned mansion. You knew he was a terrible person when he killed your mother. There he is. What will you do?
Which do you think is better? The first scenario had a whole haunted mansion section in addition to bandits, but the second scenario will fuel the player throughout their entire time in the dungeon. You can combine the two and make the bandit leader Johashee’s father who is also somehow able to send out spirits, but you need to follow one rule when setting up the dungeon to your players.
Make it personal.
History and purpose
In the article I linked to earlier it recommended that you have a purpose to your dungeon, but what about before it was a dungeon? What purpose did it serve then and why did the current occupants inhabit this particular place?
Let’s take the run-down mansion. Nobody inhabits the place and it is close enough to the town in order to conduct ‘buisness.’ Those may seem like good reasons, but sending ghosts to haunt people might be another reason to inhabit this place.
Did the bandits inhabit the place and then find out that there were ghosts or did they inhabit the place deliberately? Normally people would run from that sort of place, but the dark history most likely drew the bandits. Use this to add some flavor to your dungeon.
What about a traditional dungeon that is dug into the earth and inhabited by goblins? Most likely goblins didn’t make this place and instead took up residency. Who built the place? Leave answers and make the whole dungeon play out as a story. Sure the goblins inhabite a place that was already made in order to live, but why did the dwarves make it and what were they like?
If you remember watching Lord Of The Rings, the Fellowship went through a place called Moria. Moria was a dungeon and it was consitently filled with lore from the past. The door had some elvish runes on it. Why does a dwarven door have elvish runes? Right away you are thrust into a mystery and the dungeon has backstory.
Every single passage and room had a story, and played out like a scene. Use scenes to give history and purpose to your dungeon.
Every room is a scene
Normally you have encounters, treasure, puzzles, something in a room. Now you need to add to it. An encounter of enemies is fine, but the party will want to search the room for loot and understand their surroundings.
This is when you play the second, or first (if it is a puzzle or trap) part of the scene. Describe the statues, architecture, and throw a bone to your players. If they are a dwarf, let them recognize some aspects and be able to tell what type of room they are in. It doesn’t have to be racial, a fighter might understand that this place was a barracks, a bard might be able to identify a living quarters area. Make each player be able to identify something special.
If everyone has a piece of the puzzle, they can have more fun putting together the pieces and give this whole dungeon life. I have in some dungeons had players be more enthralled with the history of the place instead of the current monster threat.
Make your rooms, hallways, and even doors if you can have some unique purpose. Do not tell the players, show them a little bit and have them figure out the puzzle. Players are a bit dim, but they can figure some small things out if you leave obvious clues.
Set the scene
Now that we have described how to make scenes, how do you set them up?
Use the five senses.
I could just stop there, but let me explain.
Sight: Make something strange happen visually. Is it normal to walk into a room that is colored by tideye? Do decrepid rotting ruins with chipped statues give a different feel than a well kept and tidy room? What about clutter? Making a room unable for the players to walk in provides a different feel than a bare empty room. Make something interesting pop out at your players.
Sound: Are the footsteps echoing throughout the room? If so the party will become tense and very quiet, trying to hear if there is anything amiss. Suddenly, a burst of sound comes from the middle of the room! Your players are now on edge and panicking. Make use of sound if possible.
Smell: A normal smell is fine, but a sense of smell can help give character to the room. Perhaps the smell of rotting flesh is enough to set the scene of a grizzly area. Contrast that with the scent of flavored smoke, or herbs. Smell can alone give the players a feel for the area.
Touch: Smooth masonry of amazing quality can feel wonderful to a dwarf, but they continue touching the stonework and feel rough shoddy workmanship. Now the group knows where the dwarven history ends, and the goblin caves begin. This can add to the history if you wish, but touch can be used.
Taste: Players can taste iron in the air if blood has been shed, but this is really an extension of smell. Normally you will not use taste to set the scene.
The scene is set, and the goblins are fighting the party in a dwarven ruin. Use the crumbling statues against the party. Have the goblins try to engage players in an area where the stonework can be pushed off its pedestals and into the party. You are technically using a trap, but this is so much better since it plays off the environment.
If an area is congested with broken furniture, use those items for your goblins to hide and create an ambush. If the goblins are extremely cowardly, then have them stand back and shoot the players when they pop out of hiding. The players now have to move through harsh terrain in order to get to the goblins since debris can impede movement.
You can use the scene to make the environment personally interact with the players. Using every aspect of the dungeon doesn’t just make the experience more memorable, but it forces the players to understand their environment. This increases immersion, and isn’t that what you want when designing dungeons in D&D?
Not a video game
You have set the scene, have a history and purpose that will interact with the players. You have become adept at designing dungeons, but what about the bad guys? When designing dungeons in D&D, dungeon masters often forget about how to use the enemies.
Players go through, fight, beat a room, and then leave. Once they come back to the room, everything is as they left it. Unless the dungeon is like a linear path, why did nothing change? When you are designing dungeons in D&D, make sure that your dungeon is interactive and ever-changing.
If the party leaves a room, why was it not reinforced with new minions or monsters? Why were traps not reset? Make your dungeon feel alive and not stagnant. The enemies have lives and are not just waiting for the players to surprise or engage them, they will interact, change layouts/encounters, and try to harass you players as best as they possibly can.
If you have a boss that does nothing while his entire dungeon is being taken over by some stupid adventurers, that boss deserves to die. Why would you sit by while your home is being destroyed? I know minions are kind of worthless, but you recruited them for a reason. You don’t want them to die for no reason, so take care of the problem once you are told about it!
Most humanoid monsters would not stay in a fight if they were loosing, the enemies were murder machines, and they had backup. Those monsters would run away if they were the last ones left and alert others.
Now your dungeon can start to adapt. The monster comes back with valuable information on party tactics, group information, and player abilities that they have seen. Use this and create fortifications, ambushes, whatever you need to do in order to make your dungeons more adaptable.
The boss might even come and use hit and run tactics to weaken the party, but when you are designing dungeons in D&D, making it feel alive. Make your monsters a constant moving threat that adapts to someone invading their home.
Remember Moria in Lord Of The Rings? How well did it go for the party when they tried to rest? Yes, I know that the party ended up alerting the enemies of their presence, but what if they really tried to rest for 8 hours? The doors were not barricaded, and all it would take is a wandering goblin to see the party.
The previous group who was in Balin’s tomb tried to rest in that same room as the fellowship and were harassed. That group could not rest, the fellowship in Lord Of The Rings could not rest, why should your party rest when they are in a hostile
The answer is that they shouldn’t have any more than a short rest while in a dungeon. If they leave a dungeon, fill it back up with monsters, or at least have the few monsters remaining make ambushes and adapt to the new intruders.
Make your players have to be very creative in order to rest, or they should not get a long rest in a dungeon. Even then, resting is risky and forces your players to delve further in order to minimize the enemies remaining and make their ambushes weaker, or finish the dungeon so that the party will not have to go through hit and run tactics.
Make resting in a hostile environment feel like resting in a hostile environment. In short, it is a bad idea to sleep in an enemy base so when designing dungeons in D&D make it feel that way!
This is for most dungeons with intelligent creatures. If you want to learn more about resting in dungeons, then look at our article dedicated to resting in dungeons here!
Taking away the meta
When players check a room, always make them roll even if there is nothing there. I know that many people are opposed to this idea, so hear me out.
Timmy rolls a 3. Everyone looks to the dungeon master who stats that Timmy didn’t find anything. Normally, the dungeon master would tell the players if there was nothing there
You see what is happening. If you instead made them roll and Timmy rolled a 3, the players might still think there is something there, but once another player rolls a 14 or something the party will give up even if the threshold (dice check (DC)) to find something is 15. If the dungeon master usually tells the party they will find nothing, then if the party has to roll, they will keep rolling until they find something.
Let your players act out what their characters will do. Everything is a mystery, and they only have themselves. No higher power is going to help them (so they think) and thus are willing to try more things. You want your players to try more things, and the game will be more interesting when they do.
Adding the world to your dungeon.
Do your players have a bounty? If not, they surely have done something terrible since they are a D&D party. Since most parties in D&D do terrible things, have it haunt them while they go into a dungeon. Now the players have to deal with their mistakes behind them, and the enemy in front of them. The players will solve the issues behind them with diplomacy, or have to fight a
But what if your group has not committed atrocities yet? You can have perfectly neutral encounters that let the party decide if they want to be diplomatic or murder hobos.
One great encounter that lets your party choose is having them run into another adventuring party. Now the players have competition, the choice to team up and divide the loot, or an enemy to fight. The whole dungeon has now changed from one encounter, but what about encounters that do not change the dungeon’s structure?
Civilians are a great encounter for the players to find. Not merchants asking “what you wana buy?” Instead, use civilians as prisoners! It is always fun for a party to find prisoners and then figure out what to do with them. They can create bonds, gain potential party members, or even adopt a child as a pet that turns into a crime lord. The possibilities are endless!
One last encounter idea that I will throw at you is a researcher. That researcher of ancient ruins might have bodyguards, or be oblivious to the danger at hand. Either way, giving interactions for your party is critical when designing dungeons in D&D to make your dungeon alive.
Designing dungeons in D&D seems easy at first, but as you can see there is a lot more to it. In order to take your dungeon making skills to the next level, you need to make your dungeon alive.
You can make your dungeon alive by creating a rich history, an environment that interacts with players, intelligent enemies, descriptors, and bringing the world to your dungeon. Players are not alone, so making the world seem bigger in a cramped space is always a welcome addition.
Taking away the meta is not part of designing dungeons, but it is important if you want to take the experience to the next level.
When you design dungeons, make your dungeon alive and not like a video game.
I hope that these tips on designing dungeons have helped you, and if you enjoyed the article leave a comment below telling me what you liked. If you have something to add, leave a comment below in order to add to the topic.
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