Dungeons for Storytellers: Seven Steps to Improve Your Dungeons
Good dungeon design is like telling a story. You need a good hook, you should think about pacing, and there should be a point at the end.
The idea of massive dungeons appeals to me. Still, I never think they are fun to play. Typically I am bored to tears of whatever dungeon we’re exploring sometime halfway through the second session, so how do I deal with that?
Previously I’ve argued that the Mines of Moria is a five-room dungeon. This is a topic near-and-dear to me, so let’s explore that a bit.
Seven Steps to Improve Your Dungeons
- The Dungeon has a Place in History
- Tell a Little Story, Then Redraw the Map
- Stakes, Threats, and Increasing Tension
- Secrets Must be Earned
- Narrate the Boring Parts
- Exploring the Dungeon Changes the World
- Everyone Levels Up at the End
A Personal Story: A Tale of Two Dungeons
My started group started with Dungeons and Dragons, and our Dungeon Master was a great storyteller. The hook was fantastic. Some orcs raided the crossroads and hung out in a ruined basement not far from the road. It is easy to be cynical today, but this was great stuff. There was a story here. I was hooked.
Unfortunately, he overestimated our tactical skills and did not get the pacing right. His dungeon was more like a bloodied doorstep.
Our group soon gave up on this first guy, but we were determined to check out this roleplaying thing. We promoted another big brother to the precarious position of Dungeon Master.
This second guy ran a meandering kid-friendly dungeon crawl. Our brave adventurers delved into the dark, monsters were slain, and the hard-earned treasure was hard-earned.
Notice that the hook was similar, there were some monsters and an abandoned mine, but somehow it didn’t quite catch me in the same way. Perhaps I was already a tiny bit jaded, or possibly our second DM did not sell it as well as our first DM. Maybe it was because the first batch of monsters raided. They were active (in addition to slaughtering characters; no, I am not bitter). The second batch of monsters were just monsters sitting in a mine, waiting for us to drop by.
Regardless, fun was had, despite the lackluster hook. We advanced in level quickly. I think we hit 3rd level at the bottom of the mine. Not much of a story. The pacing was slow, safe, and without a grand finish, but loads of fun regardless. You know, safe kiddie stuff — and I cannot emphasize this enough — the way you want to introduce kids to roleplaying games. Safe kiddie stuff! I am not kidding.
I cannot remember how we got to our third DM, but I can tell you why we got to our fourth, which was me: running a good dungeon crawl had to be loads of fun, and I wanted to do it.
So here we are.
Below are seven steps to improve your dungeons, from what I learned from the two great (and very different) mentors and some things I have figured out for myself.
The Dungeons Needs a Place in History
Designing a good dungeon begins with two ingredients: (1) what are the characters up to, and (2) a long hard look at your world’s history.
Meaning to take the dungeon to the next level (hah!), it must be relevant to the characters and the campaign setting. For me, the dungeons need not be overly creative, but they must make sense for the story.
Three easy examples from the Lord of the Rings:
- The Mines of Moria was home to the dwarves, but they dug too greedily and too deep, and now something terrible lurks down there. The mines are relevant because it is a shortcut past some pesky mountains, it turns out to be a hang-out for enemy soldiers, and it is a worldbuilding set piece. It has a solid spot in the world’s history.
- The trolls that nearly cooked Bilbo and the dwarves were a random encounter. However, the trolls were an omen of darker days ahead, and looting their lair provided a nice info dump in the form of a couple of swords. The trolls and the cave were, despite the apparent randomness, firmly rooted in the world. The storyteller retconned the problem by making one of the swords a family heirloom and letting it push the story forward later as an orc detector. The trolls may have been a random encounter, but the loot became vital for the characters, and there is nothing random about that. It was a fun encounter and served as a worldbuilding device.
- Shelob’s Lair, another shortcut through a mountain, was home to a dark creature deeply rooted in Middle-earth’s myths. This made the lair an important piece of worldbuilding, even if the characters decided on another path. The encounter was important as an obstacle on the journey. It became a site for a betrayal (bad Gollum), a profound realization for one of the characters (nice Sam). It paid off rewards the storyteller had set up earlier (look at this fancy elven stone). The dungeon became very important for the story. Pretty good for a tunnel through a mountain stocked with a single monster and no loot.
Good stories are cause and effect, which is much easier than something genuinely unique and probably more likely to give the emotional payoff we crave in stories. So, making sure the dungeon makes sense is more important than milking the “strange features” random table when designing the dungeon.
There is nothing wrong with doing both, but I know where I put my trust.
In the examples above, the dungeons are essential to the world (ok, perhaps the troll lair is less so). The characters do not have to go there for the dungeons to be important. The time spent thinking of the dungeons is not wasted, assuming you plan to continue developing this world.
Tell a Little Story, Then Redraw the Map
Suppose you have pinned down your dungeon in the world’s history. In that case, you already know something about what the dungeon’s original inhabitants were doing there. These past events may be the very thing that motivates the characters to explore the dungeon.
Then look at the world history of the region and lands around the dungeon. Imagine how the dungeons influenced these events and how the surroundings influenced the dungeon in return.
Write down this history, just a few paragraphs.
This is my favorite part of The Temple of Elemental Evil (1985) for Dungeons and Dragons. The dungeon has firm roots and changes the surrounding area.
Then imagine what kind of rooms the dungeon needs to fill the role you have assigned. Was it an important military outpost? It needs barracks, battlements, and smithies. Was it home to a wizard who raised a goblin army on the side? Add wizardly workshops, a library, and powerful arcane wards (perhaps now is the time to dig out the “strange features” random table).
Draw the map. Just a rough sketch at this point.
Look at the map and imagine life in the dungeon. Where did the goblins sleep and practice fighting? How long did the wizard have to walk for her midnight snack? Where’s the restroom? Did the wizard and the goblins share restrooms? Where’s the wizard’s secret escape hatch, and where did it end up? What if pesky explorers found the escape hatch first instead of the main entrance? The escape hatch must surely be as well protected as the main entrance, or what would be the point, but can anyone keep that secret?
And so on.
You may realize you want to redraw the map before it makes sense. If making sense is an objective.
Stakes, Threats, and Increasing Tension
Stocking the dungeon was a thing when I was a kid. This meant picking tricks, traps, and monsters, random or ala carte, to create a fun dungeon exploration. It meant looking up random tables for dungeon design to ensure every room was challenging and twisted the game in interesting ways.
Nostalgia is powerful, and the idea makes me all excited and fuzzy.
However, it never worked. Not for me anyway.
Telling the little story above should help you carefully pick your dungeon’s tricks, traps, and monsters. For me, the dungeon denizens must make sense in the world and the story, although this may make the game more predictable. This predictability may not be the problem you think it is. Predictability is a chance for the players to feel clever. Predictability is a chance to create a world with consistent logic. This helps you create a satisfying story, even at the cost of minor twists.
Another limitation is your game system of choice, the power level of that system, and how much work you are prepared to do. Suppose the system scales from beginning action heroes to godlike paragons, and the monster books include 350 monsters. In that case, you may find that a story that only involves orcs, goblins, and ogres does not fit your characters or the story you have in mind.
So what do you do?
You can create more orcs to fit the characters’ current power, at the risk of introducing orcs more potent than the dragon the characters defeated last week. This is not entirely satisfying but works. It happens in computer games all the time.
It is possible to broaden the monster list a little. Trolls and giants may be a good fit for orcs. Maybe orcs are the great artificers in your world, and this is the time to pull out the golems. Perhaps the ogres are the fire sorcerers in your world. Goblins have been portrayed as wolf riders in some franchises. I have talked about monster themes before, and this is a good time to revisit this idea. This is an excellent opportunity to look at monster themes and worldbuilding.
Once you have established the baseline threat level for your dungeon, make sure you have additional souped-up variants up your sleeve.
You can allow the characters to be powerful and attempt to make the story to be about something other than just defeating monsters.
I am doing all of the above. I do not feel I get it right, but maybe I never will. Perhaps this is about the journey.
Keep track of the time as you run the game. Take stock 90 minutes before you expect to end the session. How are the characters’ resources looking? All healed up and looking good? Do they have plenty of spells and ammo left? Maybe overconfident or even bored?
It is time to wallop them. In a friendly, safe, and non-predatory manner, of course. It’s a game. Don’t forget that. Also, tweaking game systems and tinkering with encounters involves a lot of trial and error. If the characters stomped your auxiliary encounter, you did fine.
Secrets Must Be Earned
Once the characters have defeated the Big Bad and looted the treasury, it is time for the big reward. Leveling up and getting a new sword is fine — satisfying even and is a loved trope for a reason — but for me, the big prize is learning a big secret.
This goes back to the dungeon’s place in history, what we explore in this particular dungeon and not the dungeon next door, and what pushes the story forward.
The big secret is why we are here and points towards what comes next. The big secret is what pushes the story forward, making it the single most vital piece of the dungeon.
There must be a big secret. Otherwise, you’re missing out. If your dungeon lacks a big secret, it is time to look at the dungeon’s place in history again.
What if the characters do not find or realize the big secret?
First of all, never explain the big secret. Tempting as it may be to show off your brilliance, big secrets must be earned.
A good dungeon crawl is fun in itself. A big secret that comes too quickly or is obvious may cheapen the experience. Make sure the characters get to level up and upgrade their swords.
Then imagine the characters realizing they missed something at some point and have to go back. You run the same dungeon twice, now with new twists, with players that hunger to learn the big secret.
Or the players learn the big secret later and now see that past adventure in a new light. I have seen this happen several times, which is incredibly satisfying for everyone involved. Totally worth the wait, so be patient, and keep your mouth shut.
Secrets must be earned.
Narrate the Boring Parts
Here’s a bit of a problem: All great dungeons are small, while many important dungeons are big.
Dungeons need to be small because of pacing. For me, a compact chapter is more satisfying than a long meandering chapter. We get to the point and move on.
For me, the dungeon begins to drag when we hit the third session. I’m thinking, are we still here? I just want the big secret and get to the next thing.
Fortunately, people are different; you just have to figure out what you like to do in the dungeon and how long you want to stay there. Determine what the group likes and how you want to deal with your collective preferences. I like two sessions, and then I am out.
For dungeons, size often matters. The size adds gravitas. Death stars, fallen dwarven cities, dead gods floating around on the astral plane, and ancient vampire-infested castles are great set pieces. They promise danger, scale, and big changes by their very nature.
So how do we combine these two?
First, I have made this point before, the Mines of Moria is essentially a five-room dungeon with lots of narration between the set pieces. Moria, grand as it may be in the Lord of the Rings, fits on a single page. It is just a handful of encounters with some narration.
Second, keep track of time. A sense of timing is key to good drama, including running games. If you’re determined to end the dungeon on the second session, one look at your watch at the 50% mark on the second session should tell you what to cut. Narrate the boring bits and run the climax. Remember to leave time for splitting loot and opportunities to learn the big secret.
Exploring the Dungeon Changes the World
For a dungeon crawl to mean something in the game world, it has to change something about that world.
The characters must learn something about what’s going on around them. This information should be actionable, meaning the characters’ relation to the world changes.
Something in the world changes. A faction collapses. Finding the MacGuffin puts the characters on the most wanted list. Opening the gate triggers the planar invasion. Power shifts.
Something is different once the adventure ends and the characters have more choices. Roleplaying games are about making meaningful choices and facing the consequences. You are missing out if choosing to explore the dungeon has no consequences.
Everyone Levels Up at the End
For many players, leveling up the character is a big part of the game. Tinkering with character powers, choosing between options, assessing combinations, and hatching fiendish tactics is fun. It is one reason why rules-heavy games firmly hold a considerable part of the market.
- So, to make your dungeon more fun, ensure:
All characters are well on their way to learning new powers as they complete the dungeon.
- There is enough loot for everyone to get a new toy. If you’re worried about power creep or game balance (if there is such a thing), focus on items that give options instead of numerical bonuses (the importance of these varies wildly between game systems).
A word of caution, though. Make sure items play well with your setting and the tone you are looking for. For example, a new magic ring in Pathfinder is potentially very different from in The One Ring.
How are these Improvements? Absurd!
My goal is to improve how I run dungeons. Now, before you take any advice from me, you should think about what improving a dungeon means.
If you like old-school dungeon crawls — like Ruins of Undermountain (1991) by Ed Greenwood or The Temple of Elemental Evil (1985) by Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer — there’s probably not much I can add to your enjoyment of the game. Unless you feel you need to shake things up.
On the other hand, if you have a story that requires smiting the Queen of Nasty Fungi, snatch up the Orb of Utter Doom, and then move on — perhaps an old-school mega dungeon can be a five-room dungeon after all. Hollywood does this sort of thing all the time, so why cannot your group? This is what improvement means to me.
Also, consider game systems and how they suit what you want to do. All systems are built with some kind of bias regarding how they are supposed to play, and this bias will vary between editions of said game.
General advice would be to pick a complex tactical system if you like old-school dungeon crawls or a fast-paced story system if the story is your main thing.
Now, suppose I tell you I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder RPG for years, increasingly following my own advice above. In that case, some may get the urge to tell me I’m playing the game wrong.
First of all, obviously, there is no right or wrong way to play a roleplaying game, as long as everyone has fun. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Second, I like both stories and tactical boss fights. It is the slog before reaching the boss I want to get rid of.
So the coolest way to run The Temple of Elemental Evil, in my opinion, is to run it as a five-room dungeon. Perhaps using Fantasy Age.
So think about what you want in your game.
What do You Think?
How do you improve your dungeons? Let us know in the comments below.