Laidback DM: Designing Dungeons

So, you have a map of a dungeon / building / ruin / chasm / extra-planar setting / landscape, etc. Now, you just have to stock it with some monsters and traps.

Here’s some hints for designing cool dungeons:

  • Who’s the Boss? Decide who your big bad is going to be from the beginning. Select ancillary monsters to suit the boss’s main theme. Then take those ideas and add a twist or two e.g. a Vampire Lord will no doubt have vampire spawn, dire wolves, bats, humanoid prisoners, zombies. But…maybe the Vampire Lord has gone crazy from a mysterious undeath disease, the Vampire Spawn are revolting against him as a result, the zombies are actually human adventurers in disguise attempting to sneak in and rob the place, and the dire wolves and bats have mutated into combined forms as a result of the undeath disease—flying wolves, baby!!
  • Why are the monsters there? When you select monsters, think about their personal reason for being in the dungeon. You should err on the side of logical. Maybe a monster is guarding a particular tomb. Maybe the monster is part of a tribe that lives in another part of the dungeon and it’s lost. Maybe a monster is a demon trapped in a room by adventurers hundreds of years ago. No matter what monsters you choose, and no matter what reason you come up for them being there, make sure they all relate to each other in some way e.g. the lost monster is searching for the the tomb, it has heard rumours a demon is trapped in a room near here. He thinks the demon might be able to help him get past the tomb guardian. There’s nothing more boring then a collection of random rooms with random monsters. If you want that for your group, then why not play a computer game.
  • Don’t fill every room. There should be a smattering of empty rooms, to lighten things up a big, introduce tension (nothing like players thinking the room has something nasty in it…), and to give PCs a place to rest if they need it.
  • Traps should be there for a reason. Once again, logic wins the day. A tomb might have several traps, all preventing the PCs from getting to the sarcophagus. A lair might have traps to prevent attackers from breaching the first line of defence. If there is no real reason for a trap, then leave it out.
  • Make the environment interesting. Think about what you can do to make the environment (and the encounters within the environment) challenging. Maybe the floor has broken away in part of one room and continues to break up during any fight. Maybe the corridors shift as the result of a magical curse. Maybe the lava flow in one or more areas occasionally shoots a jet stream into the air, splashing those around it with burning magma.
  • What’s the hook? There should be a good reason why the party is invading this dungeon. It’s often good to link it in some way to a PC’s backstory (although you shouldn’t do this every time) e. g. a PC’s sister has gone missing in a vampire attack on the local town. In the dungeon, she has been transformed into a vampire spawn. Save her, or kill her? Moral quandaries are always my favourite.

Game on!

Steve 😊

PS want some examples of adventures made from single maps? Check out Shotglass Adventures Vol. 1 and 2 at the link below.

For Laidback DM products, in print/PDF/digital, visit https://www.drivethrurpg.com/m/browser/publisher/13989.

To support my Kickstarter for Maps Your Party Will Die For, click on https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/laidbackdm/maps-your-party-will-die-for-for-5e-pathfinder-osr-rpgs

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