Building a Dungeon, Dungeons & Dragons

I’m Learning to Build a Dungeon!

One of the aspects of my game that I’m actively working on improving right now is my use of dungeons – in that I rarely use them in my games and have only a passing knowledge of how to make a good one. To help me learn how to make a good dungeon I’ve been reading a bit of the Dungeon Master Guides from almost all of the editions, as well as, a few other sources that have tickled my fancy.

One of the surprising things I’ve learned so far is how similar building a dungeon, a campaign world, and an adventure really are from the get go. Each asks a Game Master to come up with a “hook” for why adventurers would be interested in exploring there. The “hook” is what draws players into the action and gets them to the point where the story begins (Cook, 97) . Ray Winninger, author of the Dungeoncraft series from Dragon Magazine, clarified this a bit by once describing the hook as follows:

. . . Your starting point is the world’s basic concept or ‘hook.’ Most successful AD&D settings have a single, easily digested characteristic that makes them unique and interesting . . . A good ‘hook’ goes a long way toward immediately signaling the world’s unique characteristics to the players . . .

Winninger, 21

Let’s look at a couple hooks real quick:

The Nightmares Underneath: The world exists somewhere between the lands of reality and nightmare in a land known as the Kingdom of Dreams. Nightmares are breaking through and corrupting the world and only the heroes can stop them.

The Slumbering Ursine Dunes: An open-ended sandbox set in a mythic, Slavic world with demi-gods, bears, demonic pirates, and a reality jumping barge.

I’m going to give this some more thought but in the meantime what are your hooks for your own dungeons? Comment below and let’s talk about them!

Works Cited

Cook, Monte, et al. Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. Wizards of the Coast, USA: 97. PRINT

Winninger, Ray. “Dungeoncraft” Dragon Magazine #256. February 1999. pg 21. PDF


5 thoughts on “I’m Learning to Build a Dungeon!”

  1. In my Expeditions in the Northlands Campaign, player-characters are encouraged to come up with their own goals or hooks for exploring a particular dungeon or location. One PC found directions to a treasure hoard in a lost mine, another searches for his father’s suit of plate armor possibly located in a castle ruin, and a third has learned his character really doesn’t like giant spiders–and so the group has planned on returning to an abandoned village to eradicate a nest of the critters.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If you wanted to start small, there is the 5 room dungeon concept.

    Older dungeons were… odd. Monsters placed randomly, because the DM or designer wanted to show off a particular critter or picked something at random. Design wasn’t necessarily logical and enemies didn’t necessarily act in accordance to PC behavior.

    Newer dungeons try and take that into account. Layouts try to be more logical (living quarters, store rooms… privy…). Monsters will have instructions on how to act if they hear noises in another, nearby room.

    Make sure to leave some empty rooms for players to use as secure shelters in larger dungeons. Having nothing but monsters in every room can be deadly for PCs and can turn into a slough. Letting players explore can build some tension before they run into monsters. Wandering monsters can keep up the pressure and creatures can try and retake areas. They should play as smart as the stat block allows.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m developing a dungeon floor plan generator as part of my program. (Which you already know ’cause you totally commented on my last post about it.)

    It’s currently in “phase zero,” which is rudimentary generation, organization, and display. Storage/recovery and direct modification are non-phase-specific that I’ll add whenever I have time since they require me to come up with a procedure for storage (I’m using a MYSQL database but I have to decide how I’m going to “key” rooms, hallways, traps, etc).

    Phase one is getting floor plans generating and populating rooms with monsters, traps, tricks, and treasure. Hopefully get dynamic re-population during this phase.

    Phase two is creating “cyclic” dungeons which feature key-lock and puzzle location associations and backtracking opportunities. I might build multi-floor location/backtracking associations in at this point, depending on how challenging it proves to be.

    Phases three and four are up in the air and include (in no particular order) dungeons which change structure dynamically and over time (including cave-ins, re-configurations, and new constructions by dungeon inhabitants), sub-levels (including demiplanes/subdimensions, portals, etc.), “non-rectangular” rooms (e.g. circular, trapezoidal, octagonal, compound shapes), multi-story rooms, and diagonal (“45-degree”) corridors.

    Unfortunately, most of the stuff in phases 3 and/or 4 require a greater understanding of geometry and linear algebra than I currently posses. In another 6 months or so, they shouldn’t be so much a problem, and I have plenty of other stuff to work on in the meantime.

    Over & out

    P.S. My program is written in Java & available for evaluation on GitHub. If you or anyone would be interested in pledging something on Patreon, I plan to keep the program open source forever and I really appreciate the support!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The last “dungeon” I tried to build myself (rather than just using someone else’s creation) was a sinkhole that opened into the massive central/ shared chamber of a series of hobbit holes. It was buried over time, and eventually under a (new) mountain. One end of the hobbit warren was going to open into a hidden valley that hadn’t been accessed by the current world since the tragedy that had hidden the warren and created the “new” mountain…a long time ago.

      Man, that still sounds cool to me all these years later.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That sounds kinda like one of my dwarf Fortress attempts. I made a large central shaft (rather like a sinkhole) with a long, spiraling path downward. I intended to create lots of branching hallways and chambers off the sides, with arrow slits all along the way to bombard invaders.

        I don’t recall what sank that Fortress. Maybe flooding? Dunno.

        Liked by 1 person

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