Saturday, 14 May 2011

Dungeons: Every Adventurer's Nightmare.

Just a short posting to mention one of a DM's best assets in terms of environment - the dungeon.
Many a fledgling adventurer will recall his or her delve into the murky, cobweb-strewn coldness of their very first dungeon - and if you really pay attention, you'll even see that far away look in their eyes as they re-tell it.  No matter the outcome: good, bad or disastrous, they will remember it fondly.

In this posting I have included three dungeon layouts as used in several of my sessions over a period of time.  The trick to a good dungeon is an understandable (to you) map, that if seen by the players,won't necessarily make much sense to them.  Sneaky, maybe, but players are often swayed by the temptation to steal a peek at your maps - even when you are present.

A good dungeon should be balanced, challenging to the point of being lethal, yet rewarding to the right degree should the party succeed.  Don't use it as a slaughter house, otherwise your players will soon refuse to entertain accepting quests that require they go underground.  But conversely, do not make them so easy that they are left with a 'meh' attitude.

Even the most basic of dungeons, or to be more precise, crypts or barrows can be dangerous in the absence of monsters.  Cave-ins are always a present danger, and at least, equipment destroying and at worst, character killing.  So long as you maintain an element of suspense and danger, whilst hinting that there might be something or things lurking in the dark somewhere - even though you know full well there are none - and exploit that natural fear and suspicion.
Upon exiting said dungeon/crypt/barrow, your players will have had a very enjoyable time of it ... unless one or two decided to catch falling rocks with their heads.

The first dungeon layout is a basic, straight forward affair.  No real surprises.  A basic hub for evil to operate from and for the party to vanquish.

Basic dungeon layout with gradual increasing
levels of difficulty.
Copyright © 2011 Mark Kelly. All Rights Reserved.

When creating any underground layout, treat it logically and with common sense.  I get so frustrated by dungeons that have cells with shut doors and a different creature living in each cell, with no apparent way in or out but the door.

Okay, not a problem if it's a bugbear, goblin or orc, but a giant spider?  For starters, how did it get in there, what has it been eating, and how could it open the cell door to go 'hunting' for food?
And why a ten-foot tall troll lives in a tiny cell goes beyond my comprehension?

So, make your dungeons logical, practical and above all sensibly populated.  If you must have orcs, goblins and other such monsters living in the same dungeon, which clearly has only one way in and one way out, make sure you script in a reason for this set up.  Is there an alliance between said mobs?  Is one mob keeping the other prisoner?  Are they at battle with one side having invaded the others territory?  Don't forget to leave clues as to activity, be it hunting, movement or battle.  Paint the picture and set the mood.

Next is a slightly more involved layout accessed from within a populated area - if memory serves me well, it was situated in a well guarded part of a city.  Here I have multiple levels of difficulty in terms of the terrain, shape and function.

I've posted two images of the same map.  Left hand map is a rough version, and right hand map is the revised, more complete final version.

Revised dungeon used much later in the campaign.
Copyright © 2011 Mark Kelly. All Rights Reserved.
Original dungeon in rough form.
Copyright © 2011 Mark Kelly. All Rights Reserved.

I do recall using the left hand map initially for several sessions, and at a later juncture revised the map to its resulting format on the right hand side, again using it for a number of on going sessions with the players revisiting these levels on numerous occasions.

Once you have a good dungeon/crypt/barrow layout never discard it after one use.  Make it a focal point for links for potential future sessions/adventures, or even a new campaign.  As you can see with the map on the right, it suggests further investigation on deeper, lower levels with the inclusion of sink holes, portals and doorways leading to other sections and places not yet drawn up.

Happy dungeon building!

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