Monday, July 7, 2014

3 Steps To Building A Simple Dungeon

To coincide with my Design a Dungeon Room contest (See Here For Details) I thought I would do an article on how to build a quick and easy dungeon. Now I know a lot of DM’s out there who find creating original dungeons not only fun but enjoyable. I also know more than a few who would say it is their least favorite part of planning the game. Maybe it’s because they were never any good at it, maybe they don’t have the time, or maybe it all boils down to personal preference. Just like some players live for combat and others love roleplaying, a DM is allowed to dislike dungeons. So what can a dungeon dreading DM do when most players are expecting at least one or two dungeons during the course of a campaign? Well there are the obvious choices such as a) Creatively avoid dungeons all together, or b) Take previously made dungeons from various sources and make them your own. The former seems a bit too extreme while the latter smells like laziness. However, I must admit that I have swiped many previously made dungeons in the past, especially when in a time crunch.

Generally, I always do my best to create original dungeons for all of my campaigns. Is this time consuming? Yes. Is it worth it? Most definitely and I’ll tell you why: if you’ve made it yourself then you know all there is to know about the dungeon and can change, alter, and revise as needed during the game. It’s a huge advantage to DM when your players are staring you in the face and you can answer them back in less than two seconds instead of looking things up and getting back to them in thirty seconds. Times that by around forty questions asked during the total time spent in the dungeon and you’ve just saved yourself twenty minutes! It’s also important to note that when you make a dungeon yourself you have a much better vision of what it looks/sounds/smells/feels like in your own mind which will help you greatly when it comes to describing things and setting up the really big moments.

So, in an effort to get more of you to create your own material, here’s my three step guide to creating simple dungeons! Now keep in mind that this is just a template and will not be all things for all people. This is just a starting point and the real challenge will be how much flexibility and innovation you can pour into this framework.

Step 1: location, location, location.
Where do you want this dungeon to be located? Is it in ruins surrounded by jungle? Is it an abandoned castle in the mountains? Is it what remains of a tower or a temple? You have to start with the basic questions of what and where. Once you have that answer, the next steps become a lot easier. If you can’t decide and would rather have fate/luck take the wheel, here’s a quick and very basic table you can use:


Step 2: how big are we talkin’ here?
Another fun question is how big do you want this dungeon to be? And the answer can be made in several ways. How many playing hours do you want it to be? How much ‘game time’ do you want the characters to spend in the dungeon? How many encounters do you want the group to have, and many, many more. Personally, I like to tackle this question from the ‘how many playing hours do I want this dungeon to eat up?’ angle and I’ve found a fairly simple and accurate time system to help me calculate. Rooms or hallways with no encounters or traps and/or riddles count for 5 minutes; rooms with traps and/or riddles but no encounters count for 15 minutes; rooms with small encounters count for 20 minutes; rooms with large encounters count for 30 minutes; and ‘Boss’ rooms count for 45 minutes.  Then, after you’ve calculated the total, you add in 10% for miscellaneous/extra time.

Here’s all of that information in another little chart to help you out:

Room Type
Simple Room/Hallway
5 min
15 min
Small Encounter
20 min
Large Encounter
30 min
“Boss” Encounter
45 min

By this thinking a DM can quickly design a dungeon based on how much time they have to run it. For example: Let’s say you want to run a full dungeon in roughly 3 hours. That gives you 180 minutes to work with. Start at the back and move forwards. 180 minutes – 18 minutes for the 10% miscellaneous/extra time gives you 162. Take away 45 minutes for the “boss” gives you 117. Say you want to add one large encounter and two small encounters, that’s a total of 70 minutes to take away from 117 gives you 47. That leaves time for roughly two traps/riddles and three simple rooms/hallways. In summary, we have just devised that our dungeon will be nine rooms in total with two trap/riddle rooms, four encounters, and will take approximately 3 hours to run. That sounds good to me.

Step 3: Select a Theme.
All of the great dungeons have a unifying theme. Sometimes it has to do with the types of monsters/encounters inside such as undead, demons, bandits, etc.; other times it has to do with the history of the place such as an old Dwarven stronghold, Elven burying ground, or an ancient battle site; and there are also things that can be done to theme together traps and riddles. The possibilities are almost endless.

So how do you decide? Well, if you are following this guide, I think you have to take a moment to look back at Step 1. Take a look at the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ and that will help you decide on a solid theme. For instance, I just went back to Step 1 and rolled caves in a forest. So I’m immediately thinking about what theme works best with those two choices. A den for Orcs and Goblins jumps to mind, or perhaps a lair for an adolescent Green Dragon. Either option would make a for a great adventure and once you get the ball rolling on either Orcs or a Dragon as your focus, I think you will find the rest of theme comes together easily.

Another option that I use on a regular basis is my “this-is-my-this” dungeon. The easy example is “this is my Indiana Jones dungeon”. Another might be “this is my anti-gravity dungeon”, or “this is my Greek myths dungeon”. You can easily take themes from movies, books, television, history, and even other dungeons!

Challenge yourself to take interesting and “out of the box” options and you might like what you come up with. Let me know how it goes!

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