View Full Version : why/how-to do you run dungeons?

2008-04-10, 01:06 PM
I used to never liked dungeons. Just never caught on with me.

I just used to not like them, didn't thought about why. But recently, I started thinking about it, and it really just came down to several reasons.

I am lazy
writing a dungeon takes work. A lot of work, in fact. Sometimes, creating a dungeon will take more work than the actual story writing itself. to make a dungeon convincing, I have to draw up large maps, figure out the architecture, figuring out the purpose of each room, add flavor and texture to each room to FIT the purpose, add in monsters, add in traps, keep in mind the scales of each area, double check to make sure that the players won't just plow through and skip straight to the end without at least getting a glance at all the cool little doodads I came up with.

It's not so bad if I'm doing a dungeon that's say, only several rooms and has only a handful of minions. But if I'm doing it for something a bit more larger scale (like say, an abandoned castle), oh man, I could be at it for days writing this up. The book keeping alone sometimes is enough to give me a headache.

Now, the thing is, it's not that I really mind doing this. I do think a dungeon crawl is a great way to use the rooms as vehicles to reveal more of the story to the players. But this is only contingent if I'm able to actually present this to the players effectively myself. This leads me to my next problem.

The players sometimes won't even see most of it
this is the same problem you have when you write too tight a plotline for the players to follow. sometimes, they'll do something that completely skips over large portions of the dungeon that I've taken all this time writing. This makes the previous point even more infuriating.

if I'm not careful, it's just dead space
this happens a lot when I don't give myself enough time to prepare. maybe that week I had to put in extra hours at work due to a project deadline or something, or maybe I was sick, or maybe I'm just an epic procrasinator. The point is, sometimes, I'm just not able to fill in all the spaces with something interesting and the time they spend walking in between rooms, exploring different hallways, and making sure every step they take doesn't have a trap, can become a quick time sink and that can get dull quick. this is especially the case if I put a dungeon wide puzzle in place. when I do, there's a very good chance the players will be spend a crap ton of time trying to figure out the puzzle only to be grasping at straws. Again, not fun when the players just end up sitting there getting stuck.

suddenly, everybody is a cartographer
nothing brings out the cartographer in people faster than a nice maze. Nevermind the fact that some of these characters can barely grasp the proper usage of pronouns or how to wipe themselves. the moment we see a dungeon, people get to drawing maps, sometimes up to scale too. this brings me to the next point.

"you walk into a room that's approximately 15 by 20"
I don't know about you, but nothing kills the atmosphere of a room faster than reading about it's statistical measurements for me. maybe it's just a personal quirk, but this is the kind of information I'd much rather not have to think about until I'm about to do something where such information is relevant.

how do you guys deal with dungeon crawls and what kind of issues do you face? I'll post how I deal with them later but I want to know what everyone else does.

2008-04-10, 01:36 PM
Recycling is big. If the players skip half the dungeon, well, suddenly you've saved yourself a bunch of cartography for the next one. Pick a tougher version of the same monsters, change the descriptive text a bit, and you're good.

Duke of URL
2008-04-10, 01:46 PM
I think many of those problems aren't endemic to dungeons, they just manifest themselves differently in other ways in non-dungeon settings. For example, skipping areas/scenarios by doing something unexpected can happen in any environment.

Dungeons may intensify some of the issues, but it hardly makes them unique to the dungeon environment.

Ever Phasm
2008-04-10, 01:56 PM
You can save alot of time by conseptualizing and abstracting your dungeons before hand. Pick a theme and that theme will guide through the rest of the creation.

In terms of players skipping over things, don't use a stick but a carrot. Use vivid descriptions to motivate the players into certain key plot areas. Also, depending on the size of your dungeon, feel free to shift the contents of rooms around. If the players NEED to enter this one room to talk to some guy but yet walked by it, then the next room they enter may just happen to contain that guy.

In summary, be flexible in your thinking and creation process and you will save alot of time.

2008-04-10, 01:57 PM
One solution to spice it up is to go for non-standard dungeons. Last week my party had a great time exploring some limestone caves that had as much vertical travel as horizontal. It requires a little bit of non-linear planning, the best solution is to get forced-perspective graph paper (basically diamonds instead of squares, so it looks like you're viewing from a 3/4 angle instead of bird's eye). Natural caverns are less-likely to lead to amateur cartography, and can be quite unique.

Keeping the dungeon's path fairly linear can keep all of the work useful. If to get to the end you need to go through every room, no room's wasted. In addition, sometimes providing a map to the party (sans encounter/trap notes) is appropriate and can allow things to flow more smoothly.

Getting rid of the "approximately 15 by 20" is fairly easy, just stop saying it. Describe the room as the party would see it. "The hallway opens into a room about the size of a living room." Most people when entering a room compare the size to a different room that they are familiar with; they don't whip out a tape measure. If a player asks you for dimensions, give them the approximate dimensions then; it's like their character steps in and eye-balls out actual dimensions past their first impression.

2008-04-10, 02:08 PM
thanks for the feedback everyone.

I've been putting some thought into how to improve this sort of thing and I think a lot of you are right on the money. It's not so much that dungeons themselves have the problem, they merely bring them to the foreground.

Ever Phasm's suggestion is how I usually try to develop it quickly now a days. I usually start off with a theme for the dungeon, and just quickly write down in a list what kind of rooms this "dungeon" will need as result of this theme. I usually then just write a couple quick notes about each room, describing them loosely. I might attach a bit more to them if they're particularly important.

Then when I go through each room to put in texture and color, I usually just try to highlight about 2-3 things to describe the room with to try to get the point across. From there, I usually can improv the rest of the details during play.

As for actual room arrangements. Usually, unless it's very important how the whole thing is laid out, now a days I almost never bother doing it. I just place them down organically as they start exploring the rooms. This approach almost always saves me a lot of time from worrying about keeping a bunch of maps.

2008-04-10, 02:17 PM
i only allow my players to map if one of their characters is actually doing it. i allow them to map for sakes of ease while wandering around but as a purely ooc tool.
if they want to notice that a wall could have a secret passage behind it, for example, they have to measure in some way and draw the map out.

in real life secret doors built in and so forth are not easily found without extremely close inspection, certain religious groups used to use hide-holes built into buildings without being caught.
if it was simply a case of measuring and they'd have been found it would not have worked.

2008-04-10, 02:36 PM
I gave up drawing out maps long ago, unless there is a specific need. Especially small complexes with 10 rooms or less

I just give a outline of the room in paragraphs with brief descriptions..then embelish when they enter it...when they leave it is erased.

If you want to instill some fear in players, never leave a huge drawn map of new areas they are exploring..it gives them to much security of knowing where they were, and where they are going

Cartography players are not allowed to draw a map unless their PC's have the materials to do so, are literate enough to do so, and take the in game time to do so..that means breaking out the materials etc.

Also, measurements are given to the PC drawing the map after he makes a skill check roll=10+Int Bonus + (Knowledge)Cartography
the DC is determined by the DM..Caves are harder then built areas, the party may be rushed etc.
it takes a minimum 1 min to map a 100x100x100 area that has been explored
Trained skill required to take 10/20..Taking this time means the mapper is walking the area, estimating distances etc. and is preoccupied with his task.

Every point rolled under the DC, the map will be off by 2 feet in any direction

If no maps are made, or the barbarian is the only one left, then there is potential for getting lost in large complexes.

2008-04-10, 02:49 PM
suddenly, everybody is a cartographer
nothing brings out the cartographer in people faster than a nice maze. Nevermind the fact that some of these characters can barely grasp the proper usage of pronouns or how to wipe themselves. the moment we see a dungeon, people get to drawing maps, sometimes up to scale too. this brings me to the next point.

"you walk into a room that's approximately 15 by 20"
I don't know about you, but nothing kills the atmosphere of a room faster than reading about it's statistical measurements for me. maybe it's just a personal quirk, but this is the kind of information I'd much rather not have to think about until I'm about to do something where such information is relevant.

None of my players have ever started drawing a map, and I don't see why you'd need to describe rooms in these terms just because ancient pre-made adventures had the dimensions in the "read this portion out loud" part. (Once the players see the room on your battle map, they'll know the dimensions anyway.)

Dungeons are exactly like every other environment: they're a place where adventure - and probably combat - happens. The PCs need to retrieve an artifact, use a secret passageway to get somewhere, or whatever else.

2008-04-10, 03:23 PM
There's a lot of talk about Cartographer players and such, and how you force them to not make maps, but unless you provide your own maps, this is being unfair.

Players need a way to visualize what their characters see, and as much as we DMs love are descriptions, a 2 minute description of a room spoken aloud isn't going to give them enough, especially when they are basically told a series of things about what is where, and then have to remember it.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and a map is a better way of remembering what your characters would have seen then just the DM throwing a pile of words at you and expecting you to remember all the stuff that he probably had to write down.

2008-04-10, 03:23 PM
(Once the players see the room on your battle map, they'll know the dimensions anyway.)

If he's concerned about people drawing a map, I get the feeling that he doesn't use a battle map and minis. You still can do that, even though I've seldom met groups who have done without.

That being said, maybe you could make their ability to grasp the layout of the dungeon dependent on their skill in Knowledge: Dungeoneering.

2008-04-10, 03:36 PM
About cartographer players well, usually I only letted players to draw a map if the character had the cartography proficiency (D&D 2nd edition), but now we play 3rd ed and the skill selection i ussualy anyone but profession, knowledge and perform (except for the bard).

Last week I designed my first fun dungeon, ussualy my dungeon crawls suck, and a lot. I rolled like 6 random rooms (with a modified table I designed using the one in the DMG as a guide), created those that I believed were missing and see how they fitted toghether. The dungeon was an abandoned arcaic temple of a long forgotten religion in wich the adventurers found behind a cracked wall the entrance to the cave in wich the cliched evil kobolds were hiding.

If you are a player of mine then dont, I repeat DONT READ THE SPOILER
You should'ntI'm looking at you R.M.K. you filthy canadianThey dont know it yet but the kobold leader is a key part in the main plot hohohoho

Grey Paladin
2008-04-10, 03:51 PM
How do you not get lost and die horribly? how do you find the way out when you need to rest? mark the location of important objects and puzzle pieces? in any but the smallest dungeons I cannot imagine a party surviving without a map.

You don't (and shouldn't) give them measurements in exact numbers, nor does the map has to be to scale, but mapping rooms, events, monsters, objects of interest and pathways, even with lines and letters, is integral to the Dungeoncrawling experience.

2008-04-10, 04:03 PM
woah there fellows. I said I don't like it when every character suddenly turns into a cartographer, not when players draw maps in general. I have nothing against players who have a character with the right skills and such to map out a map. Hell, I don't even mind the players drawing a rough sketch to keep their direction.

Chosen of Vecna makes a good point though. Visualization, often unless you're playing a game that allows a lot of freeforming, can be difficult for the players who must rely on the GM for the details. In the past, that has gotten me in a fair bit of trouble. My recent group this tends not to be an issue as I often will let them fill in the blanks for me if I feel what they're claiming is reasonable enough.

i.e. I might describe a study room/library for an ancient noble from way back when. I might have only the description "rows of bookshelves pertaining to the noble's various interest" and "majestic desk with various bric-o-bracs strewn about the table. the owner of this table is clearly not very organized and the table is left in a bit of disarray."

one player ask me if he can find a coffee mug or something on the table. I think to myself, "sure, why not. the guy probably drinks at his desk while he reads" so I say to him no problem. another player asks me if the noble has any spellbooks in his collection. To me, that is a bit of stretch and not part of the noble's character, so I just say no.

And of course, I can just lay down some quick layouts for the players when I find it necessary. most of the time, this is done quick and fast.

2008-04-10, 04:07 PM
Random points
-I generally don't make very big dungeons. If this doesn't conceptually make sense, have half or more of the dungeon collapsed.
- I get the impression that I make them less than most DMs. Certainly, there are many adventures out in the open.
-My players tend to explore it all, less they miss something important. If it is, they will, if it isn't, it doesn't make sense for either of you to have it.
-Generally, I describe the dimensions and shapes of things by drawing a quick version of the room based on my private map, this is usually because it has a puzzle, trap, or monster that generally requires it being drawn anyway.
-Resources for puzzles & riddles: here (http://www.rinkworks.com/brainfood/p/riddles1.shtml), here (http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~wwu/riddles/intro.shtml), here (http://www.thievesguild.cc/traps/), & here (http://www2.kenyon.edu/AngloSaxonRiddles/texts.htm).
-Anything that you feel will be too difficult for the players, have an alternative. They answer a riddle or unleash a monster, defeat the monster or escape from it, cross the hazard or find the switch, find the switch or take the trap etc.

2008-04-10, 04:15 PM
Cartographers: Who cares? Let them draw. Does it really detract from anything letting them visualize the scene?
Monsters: Pick 6, 8, or 10 monster types that are likely to inhabit the dungeon and are appropriate challenges for the party. Have their stats readily available and whenever there should be an encounter with monsters, roll a d6, d8, or d10 (as appropriate) to see what's there. Then just keep track of their HP.
Rooms: Play it by ear. Write brief descriptions for all the rooms and don't give dimensions until something requiring them comes up. Come up with dimensions on the fly. Give more detail as asked and come up with that on the fly, too.

2008-04-10, 04:15 PM
Conceptually a traditional rooms-and-hallways dungeon is perhaps the purest manifestation of the adventure flow chart possible. Plot point A leads to decision point B, decision point leading to C or D. C leads to E, F & G, D leads to E & H, etc.

Now, here's the secret. If you can, you never let the players realise that this is the template you're working from. That's where plot, pacing, the "wow!" factor of interactive wondrous architecture, bizarre magical traps, NPC opposition (Miko-like knight templars (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/KnightTemplar), rivals, the BBEG), the deadline, the magic word "suddenly...!" and the MacGuffin all come in.

Writing a dungeon takes next to no work if done cleverly. Just think of an engaging theme for the dungeon, then mix-and-match thematically suitable elements and stolen bits of sheer shiny-ness until "Woah, cool!" is achieved.

Dead space - either on the map or in the game - only comes from boring, so avoid boring. The urge to map is understandable (systematising is a nerd/geek fetish (http://www.randsinrepose.com/archives/2007/11/11/the_nerd_handbook.html) after all); but you are pretending to be adventurers, not surveyors. In fact ideally mapping never even comes up outside of combat or the GM's map. The PCs should be too damn busy charging, jumping, swinging, swooping, fighting or fleeing over the cool terrain to pace it out.

In Eggy's book a good dungeon is one where each and every room serves a necessary function in the story - just like every scene does in a good film. Anything more than what is needed for the story is just paid-by-the-word padding. Did James Bond ever see the henchmen's barracks? No! Then why should your heroes? If a longeur approaches don't be afraid to just Star Wars wipe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wipe_(transition)) to the next cool bit.

Got the cool dungeon blues? Read the "Dungeonomicon", or go here (http://tgdmb.com/viewtopic.php?t=36201). Manifest win is assured. :smallcool:

2008-04-10, 04:21 PM
How do you not get lost and die horribly? how do you find the way out when you need to rest? mark the location of important objects and puzzle pieces? in any but the smallest dungeons I cannot imagine a party surviving without a map.

How big are your dungeons? I'm not talking about the Underdark here, but actual dungeons - tunnels under Hellgate Keep, catacombs, underground dwarven ruins... these are all places built by somebody to be used for some purpose, and are pretty much by definition very easy to navigate.

Even in the immense Undermountain, most of the levels are not anywhere near big enough to really get lost in, and are full of landmarks. Retracing your steps is so trivially easy that I don't see - and never have seen - any reason to require the players to memorize or record their route. "Gee, lets go back to the room where we killed all those lizard-people." "Okay." "Hey, let's go back and examine that statue of the elven warrior." "Okay."

I just don't see a way in which requiring players to draw maps and demanding that they dictate to you every turn and door they take trying to get back to a previous location enhances anyone's fun.

Also, as for proficiency... drawing a functional map of a dungeon is not difficult. It requires the capability to draw boxes connected by lines. Even the dumbest half-orc should be capable of this. It is not cartography - you don't need a sextant, you don't need to measure miles of distance and draw accurate lines at such scales, etc. You need to know how many exits / entrances a room had, on which walls, and what they connected to.

2008-04-10, 04:33 PM
Yea, probably right, boxes and lines, makes sense, it is alwas a good solution for the lack of a big "You are here" sign in most dungeons, I'm thinking of a dungeon with that kind of signs right now, but players should make some kind of chek before they realize they're in front of one of them.

2008-04-10, 04:36 PM
I definitely allow my players to make maps as they go, no requirements from the characters. No matter how much detail I give in my verbal descriptions of a room, it does not give the sense of scale, direction, or understanding that actually experiencing the room ever would. Having a map can give the players a better grasp of the space, which is important regardless of how large the dungeon. Saying "let's go back to the room with the elven statue," is enough to get by, but it becomes nebulous and insubstantial when you go through twenty rooms over the course of an hour or two. Sure you may have been in that room fifteen minutes of real time ago, but how far is that room from the entrance? If it's underground, what's the approximate depth? How far is the room from your current position?

If you were really exploring this cave, you'd have at least a vague idea of all these figures. When you've just been going off of verbal descriptions, you probably only have the roughest idea at all. If it's small with no dead ends, this might not matter. HOWEVER, not having these answers can detract from the game immersion. After all, how can you role-play what it's like to be in the dungeon if you only have some vague ideas of where you are?

2008-04-10, 04:55 PM
If you do have a massive dungeon complex. Have the character's bring Chalk and draw a brief map on the walls. I have had fun, by having previous explorers leave such markings allowing the players to find a second exit from the dungeon.

2008-04-11, 08:52 AM
these are great advices. next time I run a game, I'll try to do a couple dungeons based off of these ideas.

2008-04-11, 03:57 PM
i've mapped out castles and things that would be planned, but when doing caves?
DM: "ok, the next point of intrest you come to is a fork in the tunnels."
party: blank stares
DM: "ok it's a three way fork, and there's some orge like noise coming up the left one."

ya know, ad what you need, but if it's naturally formed caves or an animated maze, or some such, nobody needs a pre-set map. Come to think of it, if it's an animated maze a map would do more harm that good.

2008-04-11, 05:45 PM
I remember someone on here posted a puzzle they did once where the party went into a maze with a 25% chance of turning a different way than they intended at any given corner. The mapper apparently accused the DM of lying at one point. Fun times. :smallbiggrin: