Friday, June 3, 2011

Designing Dungeons

Rough Map--Click for Larger View

The Map Method

I am beginning to flesh out the next adventure in my Holmes Basic edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign and thought I'd share some of my dungeon design tips. I offer them in modesty since I know that they are very simple and that many do it far better but perhaps they can help a fellow DM or aspiring DM.

I will post this first step and as the dungeon progresses, I will update the blog.

I don't always do it the same way but one way, a very fun way, is to begin with the Map itself.

I generally try to have some idea of what sort of environment the Map represents--a ruined castle, a cave complex, a wilderness route, or what have you.

The Map may take me several days or one hour to finish. I try and make it aesthetically pleasing to myself so that I enjoy working with it.

Sometimes I already have some Dungeon elements or monsters in mind as I draw the map, but often I just draw things that are fun to draw, and you'd be surprised how many ideas come to you when you do this. At the moment, this Map has no name or back story--I only know that it is most likely a ruined castle.

After I have a working Map, I begin to concentrate on Monsters. I know this is going to be a dungeon for third level characters so I take the AD&D Monster Manual, the Holmes Book, Fiend Folio and/or Monster manual Two and begin to look through them just for fun, concentrating on the 3-4 Hit Dice Level Monsters.

Some are obviously unsuitable for my Map (sea creatures and the like, for example), and some seem a bit to familiar. Often, I will try to find unusual monsters that my players are not used to to spice up the game.

Once I have some Monster ideas, I begin to look at the map and visualize the ecology of the Dungeon, where in the labyrinth what monsters might conceivably dwell, and what their relationships to each other, if any, would likely be. Once I actually place them, even tentatively, I can begin to roll Treasure, though all is not left to the roll of the Dice. For example, I already know that I will be placing a +2  Nine Lives Stealer Sword somewhere in this Maze!

Why? Because in flipping through the DM's Guide one day I thought it was an awesome magic item.

On my working Map, I begin to make rough notes with arrows and symbols. These notes will form the seeds of my later Dungeon Key, which I personally enjoy writing out in full detail. Some are lengthy documents. However, I have run adventures entirely from the notes on the map page in a pinch.

For now though, I am only working on ideas.

Thus far, I have decided that the main monsters of this dungeon will be Bug Bears, a Giant Leech, and Shadows!

Looking at my Map, I decide the Flooded Chamber will be the abode of the Leech. In fact, I drew the Chamber first and went looking for a creature to lair there.

The higher sections of the sub level where the Flooded Chamber is will be, I decide, the abode of undead. But since I am not really making this ruin a Maze that was set up by a necromancer (I think the castle will belong to an ancient warrior instead), I decide that Shadows make more sense--they are lingerers, haunting the place they knew in life.

As for my Bug Bears, I have chosen to make them encamp in the upper level, and since there should be a logical reason that they have not fallen prey to the leech, I make them pile debris that seals off the lower chambers. Under no circumstances do the Bug Bears EVER go poking around down there--they know something terrible is there...

I put the Map away but thought on it some at work (don't tell my boss...). I like to have puzzles as much as monsters in my games and I tried to imagine what would inhabit the overgrown courtyard. A troll? Sprites?

Instead, I imagined some magical birds that look rather like peacocks but more fantastic. These birds can be seen in the trees and bushes outside the dungeon. Also, I conceive, there are piles of gray feathers here and there. I decide the birds are a magical race of birds, and that they watch explorers in such a fashion that a  clever player may think to speak to them. I also decide the birds will appear to have very valuable feathers, creating some conflict in the party as to how to handle the birds.

If they do talk to the birds, the birds will speak back, and state their hatred for the Bug Bears who live inside, giving a warning to the party. The Bug Bears, who only recently came to the castle, kill and eat the birds. The birds may reveal other clues about the Maze--not too much, of course.

I also decide that the birds have magical feathers, and to friendly party members, they will allow them to each pluck a feather which gives +1 to magic based saving throws or at least against certain magics.

If the birds are slain, their feathers turn gray and lose their power--the gray feathers on the ground are meant to be a clue to this fact.

As yet, I still have no traps or tricks inside the Maze, except that I am trying to think of a way to make the players think the undead Shadows are really just very thick shadows--I want the Shadows to be a trap, and I think of laying skeletons about somewhere as a red herring to mislead the party.

I have not rolled Treasure yet, and I don't know what other items besides the Nine Lives Stealer will be in the Maze. Also, I have not yet determined a purpose for every room. I have a vague idea that the door to level to will be hidden in a pool of water that must be drained of water by a secret mechanism.

This is basically how I begin a lot of my dungeons.

I will keep you posted as I update the dungeon and eventually, upload the actual finished map and Key on the blog.


  1. I love pictures of people's campaign notebooks--that map is great!

    We can never have too many thoughtful reflections on the creative processes of DMing...

  2. I must say, I love the scanned maps on this blog (not just this one, but all the others). I often find RPG maps uninteresting, but these are great both in layout and execution.

  3. Thanks for that and for reading.