Creating dungeon adventures for fantasy roleplaying games is fun and provides a play experience that is uniquely yours. Dungeons can be carefully crafted, or generated by random tables, and either way can be equally enjoyable.
Do You Need To Create A New Dungeon?
First consider if a new location actually is necessary, as bringing back an old dungeon will save you time, and add layers to the established lore of your setting.
Perhaps the slaver stronghold you played last summer has an additional level, or the binding chamber from Lich King’s Tomb you ran for Christmas eight years ago now has been brought back to life by cultists? Perhaps the derelict temple ruin outside the city again is the center of the death cult the city never seems to shake? Or the red dragon lair you ran two years ago with previous characters now is the lair of an orc warband? Recycling old material saves you time.
Another benefit is that revisiting old locations allows you to highlight change and show the effects of the characters’ previous actions. Witnessing the character’s impact on the world is rewarding, and should be included in the game. Showing change and adding layers gives depth, and helps your story, so recycling old material can also be satisfying from a story standpoint if done right.
Regardless if you need a new dungeon, or build on an old one, proceed with the steps below.
The Five Steps of Dungeon Design
There are many ways to design a dungeon, but I generally follow the same five steps every damned time.
- Find a catchy name for the dungeon.
- Create some character hooks.
- Write up a backstory, including some dark secrets, for the dungeon.
- Stock up the dungeon with monsters, traps, loot, roleplaying encounters, and hooks for further adventures.
- Draw the map.
Jump back and forth between the steps as you revise the dungeon. Many of my ideas for dungeons never pass the three first stages as the characters tend to have a will of their own, so I rarely begin step four and five unless the players already have decided to explore a particular dungeon.
A Catchy Dungeon Name
Every good dungeon needs a name, even if it is just for reference in your notes. The name has three functions:
- Invoke some sense of wonder when presented to the players. The name should reflect the location, its role in the story, and bait the players into exploring the site.
- Be unique enough to work for flawless cut-and-paste when you eventually come up with a better name.
- For reference, if you keep a journal or setting bible of sorts.
There are several good random dungeon name generators online, or if you prefer, use this table for ideas:
|Random Name Table|
|2.||Deadly||Caves||of the Black Scimitar|
|3.||Forgotten||Chapel||of the Blight Druids|
|4||Forlorn||Crypt||of the Burning Vizier|
|5||Forsaken||Fane||of the Demon Queen|
|6||Lost||Ruin||of the Dragon Lords|
|7||Profane||Sanctum||of the Fallen Knights|
|8||Scarlet||Tomb||of the Elven Warlocks|
|9||Sinister||Tower||of the Imperial Magi|
|10||Vault||of the Storm Lord|
|11||of the Troll King|
|12||of the King in Rags|
Finding a dungeon in a fantasy setting should not be difficult. Figuring out why you want to go down there may be harder, and is perhaps the most critical step.
Gold and exciting combat are both excellent reasons, but you sell your game short if you stop at that. You take your dungeon to the next level, pardon the pun, once you figure out “why” this particular dungeon and not just any hole in the ground.
Look for possible dungeon locations in your campaign outline and character backgrounds, and tie the location to the campaign backstory and the main plot.
For example, hooks for the Lost Crypt of the Burning Vizier, relating to possible character backgrounds:
- The characters find maps and a journal pointing to the dungeon when they go through the treasure of a defeated villain. A journal reveals a connection to a larger plot, and show new parts of the enemy’s plans.
- The Cultists of the Succubus Queen have asked around the city about a lost crypt, and the mentor of one of the characters is missing after investigating the rumors.
- A characters’ faction – let’s say, guild, noble patron, or church – has long been under attack by monsters operating from a ruin in the wilds, a lost crypt of old. The future of the faction, and thus the related character, is at stake.
- The ancestors of an elven or half-elven character lived or were captives by a cult operating from a now lost crypt in the area. Events long past still haunt the character, and now become relevant as the story’s villain has sent agents there.
The characters now have personal reasons to explore the dungeon, in addition to the dungeon being a hideout for whatever threat currently plaguing the lands.
Whenever you fill in a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece.
– The Second Rule of Dungeoncraft, Ray Winninger
Proceed to the dungeon’s backstory once you have the character hooks in place. Many pieces should fall into place asking a series of questions and relating them to the character hooks you have decided in the second step.
Every dungeon should be grounded in the setting, meaning it has played a part in the setting’s history, been the site of some significant event or lair of a significant creature.
Dungeons should also have one or more dark secrets, and you may have a couple after working through the character hooks and the backstory, but you need at least one more. Something that shows a new side of the world and perhaps gives the characters new insights and options.
Dungeons with history, several hooks, and many secrets have replayability for both new characters and old characters who want to revisit the site to explore more.
Answer the following questions.
- Who built the dungeon, when and why? Figure this out, and everything becomes more natural.
- Was the dungeon secret at the time, and why?
- When was the dungeon abandoned by the original builders, and why?
- Is the dungeon’s location known or lost? How did it now resurface, if lost?
- Has anyone explored or resettled the dungeon since its first abandonment?
- Has any current day factions any stake in the dungeon? Let’s say sinister cults seekings its secrets, any tyrants looking for artifacts hidden here, or any dark lords amassing power in the nearby wilderness?
Use the following as inspiration or generate randomly.
- Arcane Stronghold. The dungeon was a safe house for a powerful practitioner of magic or even a mage guild. The constructor may have been an outlaw or sanctioned by the rulers, or may actually have been one of the rulers.
- Church Stronghold. A church first constructed the dungeon for protection for relics, valuable knowledge and even people in times of crisis.
- Crypts. The dungeon was constructed as a final resting place for the dead. The dungeon’s size and grandeur may depend on the wealth and power of the deceased, and the society’s beliefs about the afterlife.
- Dwarven Settlement. The dungeon was a dwarven outpost for mining, trade, and defense.
- Government Stronghold. The ruler of the lands constructed the dungeon to hide and protect supplies, secrets, provisions, and prisoners.
- Mining Operation. The dungeon was initially a mine.
- Natural Caves. The dungeon is a natural cave system, although perhaps later changed and expanded by its denizens.
- Vault. The entire dungeon was built to store important items. The nature of the items and the rivaling factions at the time should reflect the dungeon design. What items? Who needed the item protected, and who craved the item?
Use the following as inspiration or generate randomly.
- The Angel’s Prison. An angel once spoke up against heresy in the angelic choir but was imprisoned in the dungeon, and the heresy continued. Both angels and demons seek this place, but it remains hidden, perhaps until now.
- The False Prophet’s Sanctum. The pantheon may not be what it seems, and a false prophet of the past found and hid evidence of the world’s true nature. Its secrets include dangerous artifacts, heretical tomes, and gates to the divine realms.
- The Fallen Hero’s Journal. A hero of the past was sent to the dungeon on orders by the ruler but was betrayed. A journal can be found, accusing the ruler from beyond the grave, pointing out the true heirs to the throne, and crying for rebellion.
- Unknown Holy Relics. A faction has hidden lost relics of the God of Light in the dungeon. The relics will upset the balance inside the church, and perhaps between nations if uncovered.
- A Monstrous Alliance. The dungeon’s denizens have allies far more sinister. For example, the fire giants serve dark elves from the deep underground, or the orcs serve an influential merchant’s guild back in the city.
- Royal Records. Lost records of the early monarchs show irregularities in the succession. The records will threaten the stability of the lands if put in the right hands, and the characters will have some important choices to make.
- The Slumbering Evil. A demon lord slumber in the deep of the dungeon, bound by powerful spells. Demon cults have long sought the location, and any hint of the dungeon’s recovery draw their attention. The rise of the demon lord will begin here, and it is just about to start.
- The Tyrant’s Secret Prison. The dungeon was a secret prison for a tyrant, and the dungeon hides evidence of past crimes. Files and remains found here will discredit the rulers, and may even lead to a war of succession.
Stocking the Dungeon
It is time to stock the dungeon with monsters, trap, loot, roleplaying encounters and new adventure hooks once the players have taken the bait and decided to explore the dungeon. Your cleverly crafted hooks and backstory drew them in, and it is time to iron out the specifics of the dungeon.
A Short Checklist
- The hook and backstory probably give you the main villain, and a monster theme, for the dungeon. Explore your monster books for related creatures for a monster theme.
- Make sure you have a few traps to give the rogue something to do.
- Throw in some ancient writing or obscure lore references so the group scholars can use their skills.
- Does the loot make sense? For instance, a wizard’s dungeon should hide some arcane scrolls, a few wands, spell books and perhaps a staff. A dwarven ruin should conceal arms and armors, and possibly alchemical explosives.
- Remember to include hooks for future adventures. Treasure maps, journals pointing out related forgotten ruins, and hiding places for dangerous artifacts, keeps the story moving forward.
Social Encounters in the Dungeon
The hardest part is, in my opinion, finding appropriate roleplaying encounters the dungeon. Session after session dungeon crawling may not be your cup of tea, and a few roleplaying encounters will shake things up.
- Brigands. Rivals, or perhaps merely brigands, has tracked down the characters to the dungeon and lie in an ambush when the characters leave the dungeon. The rivals may not be outright murderers, but are at least uncertain of the outcome of a fight, and attempts to bully the characters into giving up their hard-earned loot. Wise players reserve some of their resources in case they are ambushed while resting.
- Bargain. One of the dungeon residents chooses to talk rather than attack, and offers a trade or seeks to hire the characters. This may give the characters access to obscure information, or an inside source with the enemy forces, which both are valuable if the dungeon and the talkative monster is related to the campaign’s main plot. Perhaps the monster can become a valuable ally.
- Prisoners. The forces of darkness sometimes take prisoners and dealing with released prisoners provide roleplaying and problem-solving opportunities. The rescued prisoners need to fed, sheltered, brought back to civilization, and the characters may choose to care for them further. They can become valuable allies and sources of information, and will undoubtedly add to the characters’ reputation, depending on how they are treated.
- Ghosts. Not all vengeful ghosts attacks. Some choose to talk, spouting vague riddles and incoherent ramblings to get back at whomever responsible for their fates.
Draw the Map
I rarely map out the entire dungeon before we start playing, as I realize my ideas for what the dungeon should be is usually bigger than actual play allows. I tend to think big, and yet anything lasting more than three game sessions becomes a drag.
That said, all the backstory and brainstorming above means I should have a final room, the location of the last big secret, fixed in my mind as I design the part of the dungeon that actually gets played.
The Dungeon’s Size
Dungeons come in three sizes: the mini-dungeon, the regular dungeon, and the mega-dungeon. There is no best size, it is all about your preference, the story demands, and how you choose to pace your adventure.
You should carefully consider how many sessions you want to spend in the dungeon. If your group clears five rooms per play session on average, and you know anything beyond two sessions becomes tedious, then you also have your dungeon’s optimal size.
Dealing With Large Dungeons
Adding to the dungeon size is never difficult. The dungeon will increase in size as you add backstory and secrets. For example, the dark lords of the past need vaults, secret sanctum, barracks, libraries, bestiaries, golem construction laboratories, torture chambers, prisons, shrines, portals, binding circles, the list can go on and on.
Creating massive dungeons is not difficult, and there are random generators that can do that for you. The hard part is keeping the dungeon small and still make sense.
Let’s say the dungeon’s carefully crafted backstory demands a grander scale than you actually want to play. Perhaps you have realized your group will grow tired of the dungeon crawl sometime during the third session, so how do you solve this? You have options.
- Naturally, you can revise your concept, or say that most of the dungeon is destroyed, or at least sealed off, making the scope of your adventure manageable.
- Place the resolution of the characters’ quest near the entrance. This means the characters get to solve their quest when you all still are excited about it, leaving the lower level as mysteries for another adventure, or simply optional if the players want to just hone their combat skill without worrying about the story.
- Narrate most of the dungeon with brief descriptions and only prepare the encounter areas.
Example: The Mines of Moria
Consider the Mines of Moria, a mega-dungeon if there ever was one. The fellowship had three encounters during their journey through the mines: the Dweller in the Water, the orc attack in Balin’s Tomb, and of course, the Balrog. Also, the party scholar got to show off his language skills as they found a tome with bits of the dungeon’s backstory. Moria was essentially an inflated five-room dungeon.
Sketch out the areas to figure out what each area should include and how they connect to each other. Each area can get its own name for the reasons mentioned above.
My preference is making each area less than 100 ft. times 100 ft. so they conveniently fit into a battle map. This gives me five to eight rooms in each area, which is enough to create a theme.
Set up a list of areas early and perhaps create a sketch of how they are connected. The areas should quickly fall into place once the hook and the dungeon’s original purpose is settled.
The entrance area is perhaps the dungeon’s most crucial area, since obviously this is the only area the characters are guaranteed to visit, and because the entrance is a hook for the rest of the dungeon. There will be no grand finale if the players lose interest at the gate.
The dungeon’s original purpose will reflect the entrance, assuming the original entrance is intact.
- Building Entrances. Doors, side-doors, gates, windows, sewage drains, water pipes, chimneys, and ventilation is all possible entrances to a building. Clever players will look for alternative entrances and should be rewarded, so give this some thought.
- Foyer. A waiting area for visitors, possibly combined with dining halls, the kitchens, and a throne room.
- Battlements. The entrance was the original dwellers’ first line of defense. The gate is strong and defended by arrow slits, possibly warding magic, and reinforced gates.
- Ruins. The original entrance is destroyed and perhaps lost. The current entrance leads into an area of the dungeon initially not intended to be the entrance.
- Mountainside. The dungeon’s entrance is a gate into the mountainside, possibly protected by powerful spells, and a bridge.
- Portal. The entrance is a magic portal, and the dungeon’s actual location may be unknown.
- Secret Entrance. The known entrance is not the original main entrance, which may now be lost, but rather a secret side-entrance.
The Dungeon Areas
The meat of the dungeon the areas behind the entrance area. Use the following as inspiration or generate randomly.
- Barracks. This is where the dungeon troops lived and typically includes an armory.
- Battlements. Fortified choke points to better defend against intruders, often adjected to the barracks and reinforced by golems and powerful spells. Gates and secret tunnels with arrow slits for archers and wizards are common.
- Crypts. The final resting places for the dead, often adorned by statues and shrines.
- Halls. Large spaces, now particularly suited to large monsters.
- Living Quarters. This area is the dwellings for the residents of the dungeon. This may be just the commanders for the troops or a wider range of people.
- Mine Shafts. The inhabitants mined for valuable minerals and metal.
- Temple. A place of worship, sometimes including a sacristy, living quarters, guardroom and crypts.
- Well Room. This area is the dungeon’s supply of fresh water.
- Wizard’s Sanctum. Living quarters, alchemy laboratories, auditorium, map rooms, libraries, forges and workshops used by arcane spellcasters. Such areas are guarded by powerful spells, constructs, and bound monsters.
- Workshops. This area is the forges and craft workshops.
The Final Room
There are two kinds of final rooms of a dungeon: the climax of your narrative, and the actual room furthest from the entrance.
The former depends on your pacing and what you consider a satisfying adventure. The latter depends on your dungeon’s origin as discussed above, and would probably be a washroom or storage in a world that makes sense, but I digress.
The Climax of the Narrative
The former is more interesting, and its specifics is perhaps best kept vague to help you with the timing. The narrative ends when the characters achieve their reason for going to the dungeon in the first place, when they are able to slay the dragon and rescue the fawning prince, cast the evil artifact into the lava pit, find the artifact, and so on.
The fortifications of Mount Doom probably had lots of chambers, yet Frodo and Sam stumbled into the forge in the second chamber they entered.
A well-paced adventure would probably have the characters arrive in the final room at the beginning of the last hour of a game session.
The Last Room
Use the following as inspiration or generate randomly the room furthest from the dungeon entrance. This area is sought by numerous factions and is potentially one of the big secrets of the campaign setting and your story.
- Arcane Forge. The area is the lost forge of a legendary crafter and may unlock the secret of replicating legendary weapons, sentient golems or earth-shaking rituals. Powerful factions will fight over this discovery, some to keep power, others to topple the powers that be.
- Binding Chamber. The area is designed to contain a threat and shut out would-be rescuers. This creature can be anything appropriate for the story: a demon lord, a lost warrior queen of legend, the fallen god, a mad prophet, the Evil One, a Great Old One, or anything you can imagine.
- The Crypt. The area is the final resting place of a hero of legend, or perhaps a dead god. The secrets found here can change the world, or the legend can return to the world of the living.
- A Gate. This is a gateway to another world, a promise of a better tomorrow, or the end of the world as we know it – who knows, and it is up to you to decide.
- Lich’s Tomb. The section of the dungeon is the tomb, study and ritual site for an undead wizard of the past. The lich may be a slumbering tyrant and inactive until disturbed, or perhaps insane after centuries of solitary study of impossible riddles.
- The Vault. This is the treasure chamber where valuables and dangerous secrets are stored.
But Wait, There is Always One More Room, One More Secret
I always leave the map unfinished as we start playing a dungeon of my own designs, and always ensuring room for one more secret or one more secret room or area somewhere in the deep.
This gives your dungeon room to grow and your story with it, and you always want that.
The Dungeon’s Future Role In the Setting
This brings us back to the beginning of this post. Following these steps should embed the dungeon deeply in your setting, typically with plenty of loose ends and undiscovered secrets that remain to be fleshed out for future adventures after the dungeon hooks are resolved.
This means that the dungeon’s role in the setting can continue to grow long after the characters have completed their objectives and are long gone from the site. I sometimes continue to develop old dungeons even if we have played them for this reason.
For example, you work on a scenario involving a succubus, and you realize you ran a partially designed dungeon last year called the Vaults of the Demon Queen, possibly named by a random generator at the time.
Now is the time to have a look at those old notes and look for unconnected dots. This will probably throw you some curveballs, as it forces you to think outside the box, and the players will be exited by your foreshadowing skills.
Perhaps the players decide to return to an old location. Thus the process starts over as you revisit the old adventure.
- Your First Dungeons and Dragons Game
- Your First Pathfinder Roleplaying Game
- Creating Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Areas
- Create Fantasy Roleplaying Game Adventures
- Create Fantasy Roleplaying Game Campaigns
- One-Page Dungeons Are Proof Good Things Come in Small Packages (Geek and Sundry)
- The Dungeon Master’s Guide (2014) devotes ten pages to random dungeons and is a natural first stop while crafting your dungeon.
- Alternatively, the Pathfinder Gamemastery Guide (2010) devotes a similar page count providing similar tools.
- I usually dig out Frog God Games’ Tome of Adventure Design (2011) when I design dungeons. The book has a 100+ pages chapter with random tables for dungeon design, and I sometimes follow step-by-step a couple of times to see what happens. I usually cut most of the results, yet what remains gives me an additional layer of details and secrets to flesh out my dungeon.
- The Wizards of the Coast release a new version of Waterdeep’s Undermountain every ten years or so. The first serious delve below Waterdeep was the Ruins of Undermountain (1991), and we’ll see a revisit now in 2018.
- Folks who want the explore the earliest dungeons may wish to have a look at Castle Maure, in Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure (1984), and revised in Dungeon 112, 124 and 139.
- Castle Greyhawk, one of the other original dungeons and the first mega-dungeon, was developed at the same time but seems to never have got published in a form worthy of their legacy, until perhaps the Greyhawk Ruins (1990).