Episode 146 – dungeon building (part 1)

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* Discerning when it’s close-mindedness versus the right time to say, “No.”

* Dungeon building (first half of discussion).  Next week we’ll be back to talk about history, ecology, traps, tools, and tricks!

Hosts: Chad, Chris, Dan, Pat

Comments (6)

JimMay 10th, 2009 at 8:57 pm

First off: one of the best dungeons I ever played in had several levels that were only discovered when we climbed down the hole of the indoor privy!

In my current PbP D&D game I’ve had five actual dungeons (the campaign has ran every day for 4 1/2 years) and all of these dungeons had a purpose and reason behind the design. Purhaps this can spur ideas for other DMs.
The first was an abandoned obstacle course designed to test thieves for membership into a guild, with connected levels that were simply a test area for the master of the guild’s friend, who was a tinkering wizard. The wizard didn’t live down there, he just teleported down there to run his experiments, many of which were left behind. Makes sense that it would have lots of traps and monsters and tricks, right? Simple, but within the story-line it worked.
Another was specially constructed by a sadistic group as a huge trap to ‘torture’ and kill prisoners. None of them lived there, they just reset the traps after each use. Again, the reason for such a labyrinth is clear and works with the story and personality of the NPCs.
There are others, but those are the easiest to explain and you get the idea.
I try and always know who built a dungeon and why. With that knowledge (and a second go-through, making sure it all makes sense for any living creatures within), I end up constructing dungeons that are realistic and not only have a purpose for the party to explore, but – more importantly – have a purpose for the NPC to have built in the first place.
Of course, sometimes the reasons behind a dungeon are just silly, as in the #2 comment (Part III) in this excerpt from our game . . .

SimonMay 11th, 2009 at 1:09 am

Dungeon tips

A series of short dungeons is better then a single huge one.
-You get to the interesting bits quickly
-Bad bits/design mistakes don’t last long
-A change of enviroment hides the fact that you’re doing the same thing.
-Quick effort/reward loops. It’s not as easy to reach the end of something in a tabletop RPG once you’re out of school and into a job, yet reaching a conclusion is where all the satisfaction lies. So scoot up that finish line a bit closer or build a few intermediate ones and it’s a lot easier to make some more time for the next session.
-It prevents the rise of questions, considerations, details or issues that break the internal sense of reality. (a big dungeon makes people wonder about logistics, break it up over half a dozen small ones spread out over the landscape and it doesn’t bring so much pressure to the reality of the fiction).
-It’s easier to adjust to the player’s moods. Do they want more dungeon? then you can shorten the bits between the dungeons. Do they want less dungeon? Then you can extend the bits between the dungeons.

So keep the dungeons short, cut out the padding and the boring bits (corridors, rooms with no special features, dead ends), only keep the interesting bits (unique or signature traps, specific enviromental hazards for combat situations, significant story location), allow the players to achieve something in the single session and one more tip:

Don’t leave the players in the dark ’cause it isn’t size that makes a dungeon endless, it’s not knowing if you’re making any progress.

Good uses for dungeons:

Intro or climax of an adventure.
-intro: the players haven’t defined their characters nor the dynamics of the group yet. A quick dungeon is a great way to see how the character plays out in practice and build up some team-work/spirit (and vendettas).
-climax: the story has run it’s course, the mystery has been solved so now it’s time to gear up and bring some back to the big bad.

On the background of dungeons:
Realistic doesn’t actually have anything to do with reality as we know it.
A realistic dungeon is a dungeon that is consistent with the reality of the fiction it is placed in. And when that fiction has magic, superpowered monsters, humans as neither the only intelligent species nor at the top of the food chain, actual gods, alternate dimentsions, etc.
Well, then there’s a lot more fitting reasons, explenations or forms a dungeon can have that the stuff that we can find in our reality.
For instance, tunnels down’t have to be mined out when there are: giant burrowing worms, creatures that melt stone, the hollows that remain of a giant fallen god’s skeleton that got buried in motlen rock when the world was till young and so on.
Creatures don’t have to follow our own ecology either. They could be incarnations of creatures from hell that like to shape the world to what they’re used to in their unreal dimension and because you don’t find darkness, damp and cold rock uncomfortable doesn’t mean someone/thing else has to sidlike it too.


Also to a certains someone on the podcast: please treat it as a given that the subject is going to be how to do dungeons good in a game, don’t bring the conversation ’round every 15 minutes to the question wether dungeons should be in the game and that you think they shouldn’t but you’re going to keep in on the conversation anyway, ‘kay?

AkiMay 11th, 2009 at 1:33 am

We did dungeon building as a sort of workshop on science & RPGs a few months back. We were talking about classic dungeons though, not the wider concept Dan uses. It was very fun. We thought about stuff like how do they breath down there (there’s a huge dragonlike creature at the bottom, which produces oxygen through chemosynthesis), why are the more dangerous monsters on the lower, harder-to-reach levels (because the society is highly hierarchical and living closer to their godlike source of oxygen is considered a priviledge), why are there different species in the same dungeon (they were once of the same race, but strict social boundaries lead to each segment of the society evolving into different directions over time) and so forth.

JimMay 11th, 2009 at 10:55 am

One of the best dungeons I remember had the lower levels only accessible through the toilet. You had to crawl down the hole to get to the caves! I can’t believe one of us thought to do it.


I always design dungeons that serve a purpose for the those who constructed it. Perhaps these will spur ideas for someone else or just show examples of how a dungeon can have a reason for existing.
One was an obstacle course for inspiring thieves guild nominees, that was also connected to the underground magical experimentation testing grounds of the master of the guild’s Wizard friend. The complex had been abandoned years before, but was recently repopulated with summoned and captured monsters and had the traps and problem-solving and often dangerous tricks reset by a group who was using the testing lab again and needed to be unreachable by anyone seeking to steal the Artifact they were studying there. The party had to locate the so-called ‘Thieve’s Run’, make their way through it, get from there reach the testing grounds and traverse that section of crazy experimental (teleporting and such) rooms and halls, then locate the secret lab where they had a chance of stealing the artifact before it was used for something horrible. The villain using the lab were simply teleporting in and out of the lab and never traveled through the dangerous areas surrounding them. The idea was simple, but it made sense. The dungeon was old, but was being used again for another purpose that worked within the ‘story’.
Another dungeon was designed by a group of sadistic assassins who wanted to give those they captured the illusion that they could escape, but was really just a chance for them to entertain themselves watching their captives run through a maze of torturous traps and monsters. The idea is not new, but it does give a reason for such a labyrinth to exist.

JimMay 11th, 2009 at 11:10 am

Here is a couple paragraphs from our Play-by-Post D&D game that gives one possible (tongue firmly in cheek) explanation for the existence of a classic D&D dungeon.

Having gotten their way, Backus winks at Filth, then Filth asks Romero, “So, have you given some thought to what I asked you about yesterday? I tell you, you will need to have something to focus your hatred on for the rest of your existence. What are your plans for the rest of your Unlife? A Lich has to have goals in Unlife.” Romero explains, “Yes, I have a plan all worked out. Listen to this: I was thinking about focusing on the two adventurers who killed me, Percy Mudd and Orjulun Mirrorstar, right? But, then I realized that once they were dead I wouldn’t have anything to Unlive for. As I go insane further on in my Lichdom, I’d probably forget their names, anyhow. So, I decided to focus my hatred on ALL adventurers.” The Imp nods, seemingly impressed. The Lich continues, “So, listen to this, my plan is to use that abandoned castle I found and turn it into my base. I couldn’t stay in the upper levels, but I would be quite comfortable in the lowest level. It’s a nice castle, lots of catacombs under it, it’s already furnished – I told you about it, remember?! Anyhow, I figure you could place your temple to Terrorek somewhere inside the castle and that would draw lots of monsters to the area, right? Then, Backus could keep all the massive treasure he will gain in his position as Master of the Thieves Guild there and that would be a draw for adventurers. That and the monsters. You see, we could hide magic items and treasure throughout the whole complex, making sure to place better and better things in the rooms the lower you get, to keep them motivated to keep going. Backus could set up a few traps and maybe you could Gate in a few really nasty monsters for the lowest levels and if the adventurers make it all the way to me – then I destroy them!” “Let me get this straight,” Filth the Imp replies, “your big plan for your Unlife is to sit in the lowest level of a castle filled with traps, treasure, monsters, and – let me guess – tricks, and kill the adventures who will be drawn to it?” Romero nods. “Yeah, that’s original.”, the Imp says with a smirk.

Backus is concerned that Filth might have upset Romero, but Filth whispers to him, “Don’t worry. It’s a side-effect of Undeath that they lose their comprehension of sarcasm. After their sense of humor, it’s the first thing to go.” He turns back to Romero, “So, do you have a name for this ‘dungeon’, yet?” Romero nods, “I’ll call it ‘Castle Grey Skull’!” Backus and Filth laugh. “What? It has ‘skull’ in the name. A skull is a part of a skeleton. I thought you’d like it!” “It’s horrible.”, Filth tells him, “You need to mention the temple to Terrorek. I got it! We’re all going to add our own touches to this endeavor, right? When you mix all those elements together, you end up with the Evil result we are looking for, so why not call it ‘The Temple of Elemental Evil’?!” Backus shrugs, “Too long. How about ‘Nightmare Keep’?” “What is with you and ‘keeps’? You know, Taber’s Keep wasn’t even a keep – it was a f*cking mansion with a few extra levels cut out under it!” “Beats ‘Temple of Elephant Evil’ or whatever the Hells you said!” “Forget it,” Filth says, throwing his hands down, “It”ll probably be named by whatever adventurers are first to make it out alive, anyhow. Probably, ‘I Pissed My Pants and Ran Out Castle’ or something. Let’s just get started on it. Backus doesn’t have the time we do, Romero. Besides, he wants to be Master of a Thieves Guild by the end of the year.”

zoogkillerMay 14th, 2009 at 6:13 pm

I have recently discovered a show on History Channel called “Cities of the Underworld”. It provides great mind candy for the traditional underground dungeon. It is also available on DVD and I highly recommend it.
Also, the abandoned interstellar way station or ship is a great place for a space faring dungeon. It provides a harsh or unsustainable environment and lends that “ghostly” feel to a sci-fi setting. I love that you spotlighted it in this episode.
I can’t wait to hear part II.

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