Freshly Stocked for Your Enjoyment

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 28 September 2010

The title of my last post, Death to the Dungeon, was meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek. I think dungeons should be in every dungeon master's toolbox, but I find it just as important to note that they should be one of many. The reason I have this on my mind is the excellent article by Robert Schwalb, "Reexamining the Dungeon." I don't intend this to be a reaction to his article. Rather, this is just where my mind wandered after reading his post.

My problem with most dungeons is that the way we create them often reinforces a disconnect between player and game. For some D&D players, dungeons are meant to be self-contained, isolated little bundles of XP and loot, playgrounds for the adventurers so they will stay out of town and stop annoying the locals. Heck, sometimes I wonder if the townspeople purposefully stock them with monsters just for that reason, but that's another post.

Likewise, I've found many people design dungeons by first laying out the rooms and passageways and then determining what should go into them. People tend to like their dungeons a bit on the large size, at least large enough to span 3 sessions or so. Too often, this means we either run into the problem of too much sameness, how many different orc groups can we have, or too much diversity and artificial separation, the zombies never go upstairs for a snack nor do they go down the hall to the goblin lair for one either. When the story is built around the dungeon, rather than the other way around, it can feel inorganic and forced. Leading to interplays like the following, Player: "Wait, how did 20 goblins survive down here with no food and water and traps too powerful for them to get out." DM: "There used to be 50."

I also worry that dungeons reinforce the feeling that players have very few options available to them, and, because of that, every choice counts. While a bit of this is important, when I play in a dungeon environment, my mind fills with this meta-game thinking. I become too scared to do anything lest it cause harm to the rest of my party. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that in many of the dungeons I've played in or read, the interactive points have just one right answer and a series of wrong ones. They often rely on my cleverness as a player rather than what my character would think or feel and not being clever enough means that my group loses out on something. Instead of exploring, I shut down and let the rest of the group take the lead, except they are just as nervous as I am and don't do it either.

I'm not saying that any of this is wrong for everyone or is inherent in everything that might be called a "dungeon." A lot of people like traditional dungeon design and people should play what they love. But, I do worry that sometimes we don't realize that dungeons, particularly to veteran gamers, have an implied method of play that is different from other environments. One that, at times, is counterproductive to the type of game experience we seek unless we've been trained to view them a certain way.


I remember the first time I DMed, back in 2Ed, thinking back it was horrible, but everyone had fun & knew it was my first time so let the issues with suspension of belief slide.

The first adventure I DMed, was not a dungeon, because I had the ideas already in my head of what monsters I wanted to use, because they were cool to me. Werewolves, Zombies & a Vampire were in the plans. I started off with the idea of doing things in a dungeon because that was what I had played up until that point. It didn't make sense that werewolves would be inside for me, and the players were starting from their hometown which was not near where the adventure was starting from. I had snagged the map from one of the published worlds so I was kind of stuck.

While I was planning though I had a game at a friend's house who had the Official Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Wilderness Survival Guide and I looked through it while waiting for a turn, and this sparked my imagination. No longer did I need the adventures to be in a dungeon, I could let my werewolves run the planes and be a nuisance to townfolk and create a reason the players would follow them back to the start point for the adventure I had planned. Yes, I railroaded, but the players were really already used to that with our previous DM, so no one had a fit over it.

I ran in to several issues that I hadn't planned for, but learned that ad-libbing was really what the game was about. I also learned that the more I planned the less the adventurers were going to follow that path, and the more they were going to be distracted by the trinkets, like the necklace they found on the destroyed zombie and attempt to return it to the proper family. (Gads, it was just treasure, collect it and move on.) Eventually they wound up in the crypt where the Vampire was in control of the zombies and there were many tunnels for a proper dungeon and it went flat, because the players had gotten used to the freedom of choosing their direction and just go and they would run in to adventure as it came.

I haven't DMed since 4e came out but most of my adventures since that first have been with small dungeons sparsely added and mostly in the wilderness with little planning because it is more fun to leave the adventure to the players and just react to what they do, once I have a general plan in place and a main villain, I release the players to make a decision. If they need a push then a villager winds up dead or a caravan attacked and things move on from there.

B. Lynn

I like to take a page right out of Lord of the Rings and use dungeons as more of a passage than an adventure. If players want to travel through the mountains they might just have to make their way through an old abandoned dwarven city, or old tunnels which have been over run with monsters or undead. It's true that they don't further the plot but some times it's nice to just let your players mow down a few groups of enemies and discover some long lost treasure.


I think the key is that dungeons should have meaning to them, just like encounters should have a point to them. A dungeon just to have a dungeon isn't a good thing and there is a tendency for people to fall into that habit. I think if you make a dungeon with the idea that it and the encounters within it advance the campaign, the story, or the PCs agendas, then I think a dungeon is a great thing. There are the other pitfalls that you mention about too much sameness, but I think that's as much about encounter and adventure design as it is about dungeon design. It can be difficult to run a dungeon that feels like an organic, integrated, and well thought out part of a campaign, but it can be worth it.

It also helps to expand what you think of as a dungeon and how big they need to be. As you say, people do have a tendency to build them pretty large and Wizards just reinforces that idea with a lot of their published modules IMO. Either they should be smaller or they should be much bigger to allow multiple paths and a better sense of exploration. It also helps to have a bigger variety of dungeons, to expand what the word "dungeon" really means. A dungeon that is half-ruin and half-wilderness can help bring variety to a dungeon. A dungeon that is as much vertical as it is horizontal, like a series of cliff caves, is a change of pace that may be needed. A crashed airship (or even sunken sea vessel) can be a dungeon which doesn't fall into the same genre conventions. Even a roadside inn can be a dungeon. They don't all need to be sprawling ruins complexes or dusty tombs.

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