How do you build a dungeon?
For Gary Gygax this represented a fundamental question of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in 1975. In the course of play the players might spend their time exploring the world map, or visiting the town where they’ve established a base, but it was in the dungeon where the real adventure began. As such this represented the ‘actual work’ of the game and where a Dungeon Master (DM), or Referee as he often referred to them at this time, had to put in a substantial amount of time to provide their players with the best experience possible.
In EUROPA he provides prospective DMs with some very practical advice:
. . . Each level should have a central theme and some distinguishing feature, i.e. a level with large open areas swarming with goblins, one where the basic pattern of corridors seems to repeat endlessly, and one inhabited by nothing but fire-dwelling or fire-using monsters . . . As each level is finished the various means of getting to lower levels must be keyed and noted on the appropriate lower levels, so that if a room sinks four levels it will then be necessary to immediately show it on 4 sheets of graph paper numbered so as to indicate successively lower levels. A careful plan of what monsters and treasures will be found where on each level is also most necessary, and it can take as long to prepare as the level itself, for you may wish to include something UNUSUAL (a treasure, monster, and/or trick or trap not shown in D&D) on each level . . .”EUROPA, 19
The first thing that stands out to me about this advice is his recommendation that each level of the dungeon have a theme and some distinguishing feature. I’ve often played in, and run, dungeons where they had an overall theme (elemental evil, or mechanical monstrosities attempting to overtake the town, for example) but never one where each level could have a different theme – which is something he illustrates in describing the ruins of ‘Old Greyhawk Castle:’
. . . The first level was a simple maze of rooms and corridors, for none of the participants had ever played such a game before. The second level had two unusual items, a Nixie pool and a fountain of snakes. The third featured a torture chamber and many small cells and prison rooms. The forth was a level of crypts and undead. The fifth was centered around a strange font of black fire and gargoyles. The sixth was a repeating maze with dozens of wild hogs . . . in inconvenient spots, naturally backed up by appropriate numbers of Wereboars . . .”EUROPA, 19
Keeping ‘Old Greyhawk Castle’ in mind then when designing your dungeon is a good idea because it means that you need to remember that each level should have a coherent idea behind it even if those individual themes do not create a theme for the whole dungeon.
The second part of this advice is a truncated version of the longer advice he and Dave Arneson provided in The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures booklet, which it might be a good idea to revisit since Gary assumed that those reading the article in EUROPA would have access to all three booklets that made up the Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) game.
In The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures booklet DMs are advised to plot out how the various levels of a dungeon are connected early on. This is done in a cross section initially so that the various connections are easily seen and can be planned for accordingly. This cross section does not have to illustrate a vertical dungeon, with each successive level going ever deeper into the earth. Instead levels can shoot of to the side, above, and below each other; they can be haphazardly laid out to help simulate the construction efforts of multiple generations of builders who began building in one location or attempted to correct the errors of a previous builder – or even to simulate locations found only through teleportation portals. Building this dungeon is all about designing an area that appeals to you as the DM and that seems like it would be fun to adventure in for your players.
Regardless of your personal vision of your dungeon it is not necessary to design all the levels at once, or even all of the connections, as the players may only explore the first two or three levels before getting distracted with some other misadventure that occupies their attention. Indeed, we’re advised:
“. . . In beginning a dungeon it is advisable to construct at least three levels at once, noting where stairs, trap doors (and chimneys) and slanting passages come out on lower levels, as well as the mouths of chutes and teleportation terminals. In doing the lowest level of such a set it is also necessary to leave space for the various methods of egress to still lower levels . . .”Underworld, 4
Let’s assume that at this point we’ve already done our cross section and have plotted out our three levels of the dungeon: how do we set up our monsters and treasure?
While the EUROPA article provides little advice for us, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures volume has some more practical answers:
. . . As a general rule there will be far more uninhabited space on a level than there will be space occupied by monsters, human or otherwise. The determination of just where the monsters should be placed, and whether or not they will be guarding treasure, and how much of the latter if they are guarding something, can become burdensome when faced with several levels to do at one time. It is a good idea to thoughtfully place several of the most important treasures, with or without monstrous guardians, and then switch to random determination for the balance of the level . . .”Underworld, 6
This means that when you’re keying up your dungeon that you’re only going to want to place in the big, important (or UNUSUAL elements as Gygax referred to them) treasures. After accomplishing this task you can then work your way throughout the remainder of the map randomly assigning a monster in each room, and then if there is treasure.
The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures volume has the DM roll a d6 for each room unassigned with the important features. A roll of 1-2 (about a 33% chance) indicates that a monster is assigned to that room. All other rooms are empty of monstrous combatants. The DM then rolls again for all rooms with a d6, in rooms with a monster a result of 1-3 (a 50% chance) indicates that there is treasure, and in unoccupied rooms a result of 1 (about a 17% chance) indicates that there is treasure present (Underworld, 7).
As a quick rule of thumb the random generation method from The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures volume is an invaluable tool. It provides an overwhelmed DM with a quick answer to the question: What the hell is in this room?
A quick review of the process for making a Gygax 75 Dungeon:
1: Create a cross section map showing the ways to move from level to level.
2: Decide on a theme for each level – these need not be connected into a theme for the whole dungeon.
3: Draw the first three levels of the dungeon.
4: Key the map.
5: Assign monsters and treasure through random generation, key as you go.
Gygax, Gary. HOW TO SET UP YOUR DUNGEONS & DRAGONS CAMPAIGN – AND BE STUCK REFEREEING IT SEVEN DAYS PER WEEK UNTIL THE WEE HOURS OF THE MORNING! EUROPA. April 1975. pg 19. DIGITAL. https://archive.org/details/Europa_6-8-1975-04/page/n19
Gygax, Gary and Dave Arneson. Dungeons & Dragons Volume 3 The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. Tactical Studies Rules. USA, 1974. DIGITAL. pg 4,6,7
The Gygax ’75 Quick Links
The Setting of the Campaign
The Map Around the Dungeon
How to Build the Gygax 75 Dungeon
The Dungeon Level 1
The Dungeon Level 2
The Dungeon Level 3
The Local Town and All the Trouble
The World Plan
Conclusion & Links to Other Challengers!