View Full Version : Dungeon Design - things every dungeon should have?

2008-12-17, 01:40 PM
I'm a bit of a newbie at mapping out dungeons...i generally dislike dungeon crawls and prefer surface adventuring.

So my players are seeking out the ancient, 10,000-year-old Elemental Vault of Memnon, the Efreeti Lord of ancient Faerun, (as part of a long metaplot to prevent a renegade Marid from flooding the whole world.) I need this dungeon to feel as if it has a purpose, keeping the unworthy from the magical vault that holds the secrets of the four ancient genie lords that ruled much of ancient Faerun.

I've already determined that the very first combat encounter they're likely to run into is a large-sized, very young red dragon (CR5), and it will get more intense from there.

What types of encounters do I need them to face? The more fire-themed (and Genie themed) the better.

2008-12-17, 01:51 PM
First thing needed is the number and levels of the PCs. If you're going to tailor something to a party, one needs to know the party's strengths and weaknesses and be able to highlight both in a way that offers some challenges and hurdles but also successes.

Unless you want to break their spirits, in which case, you'd also need to know how much you wanted them broken.

Magic Mouths are always fun...

2008-12-17, 01:57 PM
Dungeons that don't see a lot of traffic (i.e. tombs) are generally trapped severely or have guards that do not require food/rest/sleep (undead/constructs/underground plants). Dungeons that expect traffic have been desigend with a safe path (traps with bypasses, perhaps) and guards.

Also remember that the people who MADE the dungeon and the people who currently RESIDE in the dungeon may not have the same purposes.

Personally, I believe that at least one whip-carrying elf maiden in a chain-mail bikini is a requirement of any dungeon, but that might be more wishful thinking on my part than anything.

2008-12-17, 02:07 PM
Amityville Mike Curtis' excellent Dungeon A-Z (http://poleandrope.blogspot.com/2008/11/dungeon-alphabet-e.html). Unimprovable. :smallbiggrin:

2008-12-17, 02:08 PM
An important factor: What's the party level?

Anyways, I'd say that kind of tomb calls for the "protected against intrusion, but with a path for when the time is right"-type dungeon design. Complex traps covering the whole pathway requiring some work to disable in addition to the successful Search-check (you could read Tomb of Horrors for great ideas here); players need to figure out where and how to apply the Disable Device before actually using it.

Guardian Golems are a natural. Maybe statues that are animated if a trap is triggered or something. Also, a trap that pretty much triggers a self-destruct mechanism near the actual vault is probably called for as a final precaution to prevent the secrets from falling into wrong hands. All traps should ideally be resetting, and all the guardians should probably have some means of being repaired (Resetting trap with X Repair Damage-spell, for example), just so that the place can effectively maintain its defenses eternally.

This type of dungeon would also probably be warded against incorporeal and ethereal excursions along with teleportation, shadow striding and so on (although if the dungeon exists on multiple planes at once, this may not be necessary and you could employ some ethereal/incorporeal defenders), so I'd stick to corporeal defenses. Maybe some sort of a factor that limits their time to get through the wards; some sort of greater ward that's triggered when it's clear that the intruders have no business being there or some great guardian that's released after certain amount of time or so on.

Anyways, logically you'll want:
-Difficult, but solvable complex traps that require more than a simple Disable Device-check to solve (but the existence of the trap can be figured out via Search, and the solution can involve a Disable Device-check; just that shouldn't be the whole story; the trap should engage the players intellectually, although if they don't get it, you can give them tips via Int/Knowledge-checks).
-Secret passages that allow bypassing some of the obstacles, but may also be trapped with some simple things you can avoid if you know about them (for those who "have the right" to claim what's in the vault and thus know of the dungeon and how to get there)
-Animated objects (lots of fun with these), constructs (preferably with self-repair mechanisms in certain areas so that years and constant intrusions don't leave them battered - some should probably act as caretakers too)
-Different triggers for different steps of the defenses to activate.
-Wards against incorporeal/extraplanar/shadow/teleportation-type movement, plane shifting and so on; basically, ways to ensure that you simply cannot bypass the entire dungeon with few spells. For example, a Teleport-spell inside the dungeon could be redirected to a traproom or to the entrance. Ethereals and the like should simply be unable to enter. Some degree of warding against Scrying seems prudent too.

I'm not a fan of living monsters in abandoned dungeons, unless it's clear that the original defenses have been compromised and that there're new inhabitants there. Maybe the cavern leading up to the actual Vault could be inhabited by other creatures, and the Vault itself so well hidden/so clearly dangerous that it hasn't been touched in all this time though. For example, the said Red Dragon's lair could be the entrance to the Vault.

With the genie-theme, the environment could include fire. Lava streams, firetraps, etc. could be a natural fixture of the corridors. Heck, the floor could be lava instead of stone (let the players figure it out). The Golems could be rejuvinated.

2008-12-17, 03:30 PM
I must admit the first think that came to mind on reading this was an image of an interior decorating programme, only for D&D dungeons instead of houses. "Changing Dungeons". :smallbiggrin:

DM Raven
2008-12-17, 03:46 PM

2008-12-17, 03:57 PM
Its a lord of fire, with lots of fire servants guarding everything right?

The antechamber to the vault should be full of lava.

The last few levels should be full of ash, smoke and superheated air.

In terms of defenses:
Forbiddance over the entire dungeon, with the guardians keyed to bypass it.

Lava golems (homebrew these, have them come out of the lava in the final room)

Malevolent Fire Spirits (there is one in the ELH that is pretty cool. Obviously its way out of their league, but you can try scaling it down)

Make sure some of the fire damage is hellfire, which bypasses fire resistance.

Lots of exploding things. Animated bomb swarms maybe?

2008-12-17, 04:06 PM
Sounds like you might want to have an over-dungeon which was designed as a guard station to keep people from even finding or accessing the tomb, then the tomb as a separate dungeon.

The upper layer will be living space and such for the living defenders of the tomb. They need toilets, garbage disposal methods, kitchens, storehouses, bedrooms, louge spaces, training spaces, workshops to repair and make things.

Throughout this lay water pipes, heating and air circulation tunnels, the lines between the alarm levers and the actual alarms, airlock style gatehouses with murder holes and arrow slits, and little-traveled trapped areas that are bypassable if you know the trick.

The lower layer of tomb should be fully stocked with traps that you can't bypass (you have to let it go off or disarm it the old-fashioned way) and creatures that don't need to eat or drink (Elementals, Undead, Constructs, possibly Plants or Outsiders).

Feel free to have a fake outer tomb that appears to be the end, with a secret passage that leads onward. Have maze-like areas, duplicate map sections so it feels like they've just been teleported backwards, shifting walls that reveal the wrong way to go, elaborate defenses for dead ends, and other red herrings.

Do they know what they're looking for? Because an Undead Illusionist could really screw with them.

2008-12-17, 04:15 PM
Turn the map of the lower levels into a convoluted manifold.

They turn right, they end up in the room to the left. They go back to whereever they were, they end up in a new room. Etc, etc. Combine liberally with illusionary walls, magical darkness, teleportation traps, reverse gravity, walls of force, illusory walls of force, real walls made to look like walls of force, etc.

2008-12-17, 04:17 PM
Also, have a room that looks just like the entrance. Birds singing in the light outside. They're like, dang, so should we go outside and take the opportunity to rest up?

Then they bang into the back wall of the illusory room and realize the birds chirping are actually the squeaks of many bats ...

2008-12-17, 04:17 PM
spheres of annihilation

when i GM people twitch alot...

2008-12-17, 04:20 PM
spheres of annihilation

when i GM people twitch alot...

In cases like this I just don't get attached to my character. When I need to make a new character I just increment the name one place and reroll the stats.

"Yeah, I'm playing Sofa King Bored XXVI the Fighter. Yes I'm using the same mini."

2008-12-17, 04:24 PM
In cases like this I just don't get attached to my character. When I need to make a new character I just increment the name one place and reroll the stats.

"Yeah, I'm playing Sofa King Bored XXVI the Fighter. Yes I'm using the same mini."

LOL as well you should.
I dont GM often, and when i do its for the LULZ.

I'm really not that bad, i once had a GM who used insane house rules that no one ever saw. they were in a note book labled "The only reward for heroism is death"

I once died 4 times in one session...

2008-12-17, 04:25 PM
Don't ... drink the Potion of Heroism ... :smallamused:

2008-12-17, 04:27 PM
Don't ... drink the Potion of Heroism ... :smallamused:

Ya we learned that the hard way...
The first game i ever played of his was in planescape.
Apprently things were in motion before i joined the game, and large chunks of sigile were falling off.
My Fighter was running past a guy and his daughter, i made a grapple roll to pick the two of them up before they fell off, and that was a long enough pause for the falling part of the city to catch up with me

2008-12-17, 04:40 PM
I actually think you're in a great position for dungeon design, since you are totally fresh and not stewed in the tropes of past dungeons. The thing about tropes is... they're a yawnfest unless subverted, inverted, or used for lolz.

Anyway, in addition to the ideas above, I have to pass on this brilliant gem:

Some powerful undead is used as a guardian in an area of the tomb. It uses hit-and-run tactics, preferrably incorporeal.

In another room of the dungeon, possibly a room with 4 solid walls and no doors, is a trap.

The trap is an auto-resetting magical trap of Inflict Serious Wounds.

You get where this is going... your undead critter attacks the party, runs away to the trap and triggers it, healing itself. Then repeat. And repeat.

If the trap is in a doorless room, it might take forver for them to figure it out; if it's more accessible, they might well set it off on themselves by accident. Either way is good.

I can't take credit for inventing this one, but it's a good one.

2008-12-17, 04:43 PM
A Fire Elemental trapped inside an Iron Golem is just as juicy. Hit it with your hand? You just took Fire damage. Every round it heals a lot of HP. And when you kill the golem, out comes the fresh Elemental. Yay!

Lightning Bolt should hit both though.

2008-12-17, 06:07 PM
There are the undead bodies of failed spelunkers that died in horrible pain.

Have a room that is completely dark, and full of undead/vermin (too many to kill). There are several unlit torches in the room, and lighting any of them keeps the creatures out of the radius of the light. Other torches have the same effect, but source of light not based on fire (such as the spell light) do not.

Have an ancient circular calandar (although you might not tell them that is the case). You can move each ring with a little bit of effort. A sealed door opens if you figure out the pattern of the calandar and set it to today's time. One ring is a depiction of the four elements divided into twelve portions (one completely fire, one mostly fire partially earth, one mostly earth partially fire) that represents the twelves seasons. The next ring separates in to 28 segments and denotes the lunar cycle. The final ring depicts a red circle on various points of a semicircular arc - 24 segments representing the hour by the position of the sun. In the center, there is something that lets you move the arcs when it is up, and tests whether the answer is correct when down.

Have a tunnel (about three foot in diameter) constantly jet out flames. Climbing into the tunnel for a little bit leads to a chamber with a magic fire item (of course, this requires getting through the flames).

Be wary that your adventurers will probably prepare as much fire damage as they can muster. They shouldn't be penalized for the smart tactic, but be sure to include monsters with other types of damage and to up the ante on fire-based monsters.

Kurald Galain
2008-12-17, 07:19 PM
You need a bottomless pit.

2008-12-17, 07:43 PM
You need a bottomless pit.

Could ... this pit be filled with fire maybe? Just in the upper parts. Because if it's bottomless and filled with fire then you've got an infinite amount of fire. And that's problematic.

2008-12-17, 07:53 PM
You know how human wizards like to trap Effreets and other Genies in bottles? Think about what sort of fun things Effreet wizards might like to trap in bottles. You could even make a puzzle out of it. Pick the right jar and out comes a creature to open the door. Wrong jar = fight.

You could also make fire elementals out of regular monsters. Just take the regular monster and add the special abilities of a fire elemental.

Lamp puzzles like most Zelda games have would also make a lot of sense.

Glass, Bronze and volcanic stones like obsidian and basalt are very thematic for a fire/genie dungeon. Glass especailly makes for interesting designs since you can have it be brittle and breakable, or magically enhanced to be tougher than steel. You could always have a straight passage blocked by a glass wall, forcing your characters to find another way around to somewhere they thought they could easily get to. Glass and Brass also len themselves well to mirror puzzles.

Golems of the previously mentioned materials are good for tough monsters.

I can see there also being a kind of garden/greenhouse area (fire = heat, plus I always picture Genies as having a keen sense of asthetics) filled with tropical plants... including a number of dangerous varieties. Plant monsters also play against your players being prepared for a fire dungeon, since they're actually weak against fire... something your players aren't likely to have prepared as magic.

EDIT: Also, since genies are magical creatures, don't skimp on magic traps and weird magical creatures that wizards love to create in their spare time.

Lert, A.
2008-12-17, 08:00 PM
Lots of Kobolds. With pointy sticks and stuff.

2008-12-17, 08:12 PM
Natural forces should add to the difficulty. A long-disused dungeon will have collapsed sections, or sections submerged in icy water. The PCs could even add to the problem, by punching into supporting walls (Stone Shape, Transmute Rock to Mud, Passwall) to cause collapses, or breaching walls that hold back floods of water. Give the players some slight notice of imminent problems ("You hear an ominous cracking sound overhead; dust and dirt drops from the ceiling." "Water starts trickling, then gushing, from the opening you made.") so they have a chance to run from these new disasters.

2008-12-17, 08:21 PM
It is very important that you have traps reliant upon time.

Use your imagination.

2008-12-17, 09:37 PM
Dungeon features. See DMG. Some floors are not nice. Pillars and statues provide cover, this surface is climbable. That one door can be opened by breaking the hinges. Slopes & high ground. Deadfalls. Jumpable things, climbable things (re: statue). Destructable things, possibly including all of the above.

Traps where the rogue never ever - ever - walks up to it and says "I roll disable device on it." They should have such and such trigger, such and such mechanics, and such and such effects. The rogue is able to jam up this one particular part if he finds the right one of above, makes his disable device roll, and this has Y particular effect on the trap (it doesn't necessarily stop everything). Or avoiding the trigger w/o disabling or 3 other ways. The trap can also be ruined or at least overcome by doing Z if the PCs have a W. Or the trap has no mechanism to be disabled b/c it's a P, instead PCs must do Q instead. Furthermore, other classes can search for it. And if the PCs want to search the whole corridor, figure out how long it takes and just let them (I'd suggest making 1 secret roll per hidden thing). Don't make them stop and say "I search this thing" 73 times, so that boredom is the main tactic for getting PCs to fall into a trap. See DMG or SRD for examples of the traps I mentioned.

A tactical layout and background. If it's a keep, the monsters are smartly arranged. They can run away and alert others if the fight isn't going well. They have a plan, a reason behind actions, and heck they can even be negotiated with. It isn't Amusement Park for PCs with 4 Rides followed by Prizes at the End (TM).

Monsters that ready actions to fire arrows at spellcasters to disrupt their spells. That disarm & trip the PCs, sometimes just b/c that PC has a low relative str/dex/size/etc. even though the monster doesn't even have the right feat. That scout with detect magic if they suspect magic. That use illussions. That take advantage of +4 AC cover, hiding spots to ambush or snipe, and high ledges. Monsters that have an interesting plan. That use tactics. Who knows, maybe the PCs will do the same and start having even more fun. Less "boom take that", more "hmmmm, whoa, aha!"

Hmmm, I'm sure there's more, but that's enough for my current $0.02.

2008-12-17, 10:35 PM
Is there some in-game timer on this dungeon and how far are the players from attacking it? If the players aren't expected to face it until they have enough energy resistance to ignore the first flaming area, there is no reason not to make the entire place be on fire; either says "you must be at least as tall as this sign to attack the Elemental Vault of Memnon."

If there is no timer, you can set up some areas with bypasses that can be discovered through some kind of research, basically making the whole trap/guard setup into a heist movie scenario. Of course, if your players are more hack & slash rather than RPers or pure optimizers, this may backfire or be completely ignored in favor of stabbing things.

2008-12-17, 11:38 PM
I'm a bit of a newbie at mapping out dungeons...i generally dislike dungeon crawls and prefer surface adventuring. To answer the question in your thread title first, dungeons should have: A reason for existence. Who / what created it and why? Is it an natural cave system or created by an intelligent force / person?
An ecology which makes sense. Goblins don't live next door to purple worms, they're worm food. That is an extreme, but very few dungeons even try to create a sustainable ecology.
Natural resources or some other reason for creatures to move in. A mine will attract those who either live off minerals or trade minerals for what they do live off. Natural cave dwellers will have extensive areas set aside for some type of farming or ranching. Probably mushrooms or insects. Yes, insects may be food. :)
Traps will make sense. Usually falling in one of these categories: Traps in areas needing extra security (entryways, protected rooms, etc).
Traps which the local denizens are immune to (height, poison immunities, weight, etc).
Traps which are monitored, and possibly set off manually, by a local denizenThey typically shouldn't be littered randomly through corridors.

So my players are seeking out the ancient, 10,000-year-old Elemental Vault of Memnon, the Efreeti Lord of ancient Faerun, (as part of a long metaplot to prevent a renegade Marid from flooding the whole world.) I need this dungeon to feel as if it has a purpose, keeping the unworthy from the magical vault that holds the secrets of the four ancient genie lords that ruled much of ancient Faerun. Ok, was this set up as a test to find worthy scholars? If so, what did you genie lords consider as requirements for being worthy? Sounds like you may be able to split different areas up by element. (Assuming each genie lord represents a different element.)

Given the purpose, has the dungeon killed all unworthy trespassers? If so, there won't be many denizens - just those placed there as tests. Probably magically summoned, in stasis, or immortal.

I've already determined that the very first combat encounter they're likely to run into is a large-sized, very young red dragon (CR5), and it will get more intense from there.

What types of encounters do I need them to face? The more fire-themed (and Genie themed) the better.Lava, intrusions from the plane of fire, lesser djinn or genies trapped or owing service as guards, mephits, and elementals can be placed with little concern for ecology (they don't need to eat as far as I know). Fire giants, fire beetles, and other creatures may need a bit more thought.

2008-12-17, 11:45 PM
You need physical barriers that can't be beaten solely with magic.

2008-12-17, 11:54 PM
Animated Candelabras. Standard Animated Object stats, but more flavorful.

One thought is having cold-subtype monsters being tortured in one room by jets of fire and resetting healing traps. When the players break open their cage, they attack due to being mad with pain, but the players get a definite(non-WBL) reward after winning, and if you make the room hard/dangerous to get to, the players will be very tactical when deciding whether or not to retreat to it.

Magmin (http://www.d20srd.org/srd/monsters/magmin.htm) are fun. Could be good for a "swarm of enemies" to make the players desperate, especially when the casters run low on spells, and destroying their gear means you can let them find more piles of Gold. Just make sure they find the replacement awesome gear soon, or the players will feel (rightly) nerfed.

Read Sandstorm and the Dungeonomicon (http://www.tgdmb.com/viewtopic.php?t=28547). Both are high-quality, and you should probably pick up Dungeonscape while you're at it.

2008-12-18, 01:48 AM
Wow...lots of responses.

They're only level 4 (possibly 5 by the time they get into the dungeon.)

They're short on competent spellcasting, they have a wizard, though he's still getting used to the class. (He gets outbatmanned by a multiclassed swashbuckler/bard at the moment.) They are a pirate crew, so I took liberties adding functional if bland (statisticly) NPCs, one of which is a favored soul specializing in healing. That's it for divine casting. It's a rather large PBP group, the PCs consist of a ftr4, brd4, rng4, rog4, wiz4, swash3/rog1, brd3/swash1, Warblade 2/OA Samurai2. The size of the group means they can handle encounters that a level 4 group shouldn't be able to, but it also means that if i make single opponents hard for them to beat, they're guaranteed to take casualties even if they play it smart, so I generally have to use many weaker opponents instead of a couple tough ones.

2008-12-18, 03:21 AM
Alright, so...directly after the Red Dragon, let them proceed through a few rooms, maybe abandoned chambers, maybe with remains of adventurers new and old, lightly deposited throughout the room. Maybe have the fledgling dragon's mini-horde in one of these rooms.

Then walk them into a four-way intersection with a statue of the Efreeti in question with his arms pointing in two of the directions with some sort of vague and utterly useless piece of foreshadowing that doesn't make sense until they figure it out. When they walk into the room, if they aren't actively searching for traps make them roll a Listen check (DC 17), a Search check for the rogues if they are searching also (DC 17). If they spot the trap, it's merely a pressure pad embedded into the floor.

By now, you're thinking...get to the point, but bare with me.

If they trigger the trap, they hear a large click. If they avoid the trap, the braziers in the room light up, and they now have a choice in direction, they want to go. The right hall holds five fire mephits who use Mage Hand or some other spell to put enough pressure on hidden pressure pads, which trigger small cylinder tubes that shoot a gout of fire, 2d6 + 2, reflex 14 half.

The left hall contains a small shallow pit, with holes in it. As they enter if they triggered the trap, they'll notice that the pit is slowly filling with lava, and they get ambushed by a horde of flaming wolves...I'd stat them like maybe worgs, but give them some sort of ability that deals 1d6 damage when they're hit in melee combat. The worgs, should be trying to push, trip, or otherwise knock your players into the lava, but due to it not being completely filled or deep enough, they don't suffer extensive damage. Now, after combat make them note that the pool of lava is still filling.

The last hall, has a Gensai Sorcerer 7 who's been stasis'd to repel intruders when they come. Make this room fairly wide, because they'll want to spread out as this guy goes into full-bore AoEfest. If they triggered the trap, the Gensai has been unfrozen long enough to awaken a few...I forget what they are called, but they are flaming zombies that are used as mummy inferiors. If the party can reason with him, he can lend them suitable aid, as you see fit.

So, as they finish up with these fights, under somewhat of a time constraint if the trap has been triggered, they'll get stumped about where the way down is...place a few suitable hints in the corridors the statue was pointing, and they'll figure out the way below is under this statue which only turns aside if you give the statue proper respect for Efreeti Lord or the element of fire. Rudeness gets punished with about ten fireborn stirges dropping out of the rafters. If they get past the stirges or offer suitable praise, the statue moves forward to reveal the way down.

And, queue a few cheesed players that the entrance was under their noses...