Let me share with you the way that I create dungeons. I read a lot of articles and forums about this, and I like to take notes from other GM’s when I am fortunate enough to witness another game or talk to them about it. If you ask any GM “How do YOU create dungeons!?” you are in for a very long story, because everyone has their own creative process and their own opinions.
I try my best to boil it all down to what’s most important. Once you get started with something cool, it is easy and fun to get carried away with all kinds of details, but that doesn’t necessarily help anyone else. I encourage you to compile your own creative process that works for you. That being said, I hope this helps you on your journey!
It’s daaaaangerous to go alone, take this!
1. Make what you want / what your players want
Every good GM I have talked to or read about mention this as the most important thing, and I agree. Look inside your heart and your players hearts (with an xray machine) and ask what they want. That can be a kind of hard question to answer honestly, so my advice is to start with the kinds of video games and books you and your group like and blatantly rip them off. Usually players are so dumb they won’t pick up that you stole the basic idea, but even if they do, who cares! It’s what they think is fun and that’s the point.
Example: One of my most awesome campaigns was a blatant rip off of Final Fantasy IX. My group was a bunch of RPG nerds (myself included). They were a traveling group of thieves disguised as a performance group, and they kidnapped a princess during a play (exactly the way Final Fantasy IX starts). They escaped on their airship but crashed into an evil forest, which was the first dungeon they had to escape (again, just like the video game). What was amazing to me is that nobody caught on, and I KNEW that half the people at the table had played FF9, but my own little personalized spin was enough to disguise it. I got way more examples (I’ve ripped off Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Zelda, Skyrim and other Final Fantasies) but I think you get the point, and I don’t want this to be too long.
A. Player Types
Some more golden advice that I get from every good GM that I read about to consider player types. Player types is a whooooole subject, but the idea is if you know what kind of player you have, you know what to give them in a dungeon so they have fun. Robin’s Laws of Good game Mastery has one of the best player type breakdowns I have ever read, there is also a short page one page breakdown at the beginning of the 4th and 5th edition DM guides, and I also write about them extensively in MY book, The Friendly Game Master. (You buy! Make Travis rich!)
B. Monsters, Traps and Treasure
The hardest part of the creative process is the beginning when you have a blank piece of paper in front of you. Like I mentioned in my example, a great way to get started is to blatantly rip off something else. Not because you aren’t creative and can’t come up with something by yourself, but because you just need somewhere to start. A great way to get started on a dungeon is to go get a healthy handful of monsters, traps and treasures from the source books that you think you might use. Even if you don’t end up using them all, having the monsters and such ready gives you a place to start and ideas for what kind of challenges you can start to build around what you know is already there.
The main goal in this step is to answer the questions that your players will probably ask. Hopefully Step 1 gave you some sort of core idea to start with, so now it is time to build a narrative by answering a ton of questions:
– Why was this dungeon built?
– Why hasn’t this place been discovered / raided yet?
– Who / What lives here?
– Who / What lived here before?
– Did something happen to make this place change?
– What are monsters doing here?
– Why is there treasure here?
You could come up with tons more questions, I encourage you to think about what kind of details matter to you and would matter to your players.
A. Tell the story as they move through the dungeon
This basically amounts to answering the above questions with details and exposition in the rooms they explore on the way to the boss / end.
Example: As the players explore a dungeon, they find that there are many plants that are overgrown and some have even been turned into hostile monsters. Deeper in the dungeons giant tree roots block paths and have grown through walls, creating obstacles for the players. When they reach the final room, they find a group of dead druids around a magic circle with evidence of a plant growth spell gone horribly wrong.
Example: The players sneak into a cave that is the known hideout of a notorious group of poachers, whom they have been given a quest to eliminate. As they explore the cave they find live traps and animal size cages, but with people inside instead of animals! When they get to the end they discover that the group of poaches actually catch people to feed to their boss, who is a vampire.
3. Make connections between everything and polish
The best way to make everything feel tied together… is to tie everything together! Once you have your core ideas out of the way here is my personal list of housekeeping things to put the finishing touches on a dungeon.
– Give monster groups competing goals
This is basically to have an answer when your players wonder what the monsters are doing there, and it gives the different kinds of monsters a reason to work together or a reason to fight each other. This explains their behavior and gives clever players a chance to…
– Find ways for the players to get past the monsters without fighting them.
For example, a group of goblins use kobolds as slave labor to dig up ore in a mine. The kobolds and the goblins fight together against any hostile players that come in with swords swinging, but with some clever negotiation and/or charisma a player could convince the kobolds to turn against their goblin masters.
– Give all the monsters a basic battle strategy.
Read the monsters stat block (to be familiar with it anyway) but also put them in a situation to use their abilities the most effectively. Many low level monsters like goblins and wolves have features like “pack tactics,” so it makes sense to put them in a small horde so they benefit from being next to each other. You should also think about battle tactics like putting archers up on high ledges. Healers and magic users should be protected by bigger tougher “tank” monsters, or have cover to hide behind.
– Give all the monsters a strategy for when they are losing.
Sometimes players die, but most of the time they win. There are basically four things a monster can do when it becomes clear they are going to lose the battle, and it makes things interesting to switch up your players expectations. They can:
* Fight to the bitter end, and die
* Surrender and beg for mercy
* Try to escape
* Try to change the tide of battle by doing something crazy
That last one is the most interesting. Perhaps a goblin sets off an explosive that makes the cave collapse, making a bunch of rocks fall on players and goblins alike. Maybe a half dead orc goes crazy with rage and drops his shield to wield two axes, ignoring his defense to focus only on attack. As a last resort, a losing mage casts a spell to fill the room with lava, forcing everyone to flee
– Give the loot (especially magic weapons) to the monsters!
If I were a monster, and I were guarding a +3 broad sword in a treasure chest from adventurers, I would take that sword for myself and try to kill the adventurers with it! This is good for several reasons: It shows the players what the magical item does, so they don’t have to read about it or have waste time having it appraised (which means you don’t have to explain it to them.)
– Put interesting and useful features in the terrain
As a finishing touch, you want to create details about the physical location that help to tell the story of the dungeon, and to make fighting more interesting. For example, in that dungeon overgrown with plants there could be “grab grass” that grabs the players feet and holds onto them while they walk though a open area, where archers are waiting to ambush them. That does two things at once, it shows the players that this place is overgrown with crazy plants, and it makes the battle more intense because they are stuck out in the open while they are showered with arrows.
That’s what I got! I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend. In fact, I hope you find a fuckin’… god damned… golden jewel with magical powers! … Just like laying on the ground. Wouldn’t that be sweet?