A blog inspired by Greg Bilsland's post about dungeons: gregbilsland.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/my...
I hate drawing dungeons.
I don't have a head for layout, or what kinds of distances make sense. I stand little chance of being able to create a dynamic, realistic set of denizens. It's an exercise in futility and frustration. Furthermore, exploration and extermination aren't always the goals I have in mind when I imagine a dungeon. Therefore, I've been trying a new approach: skill challenge dungeons.
There's no map, just a general idea of the kinds of environments and hazards the PCs might encounter. To give the sense of exploration, there's an ongoing skill challenge that is meant to simulate navigating and exploring the structure. To give the sense of danger, there's a concurrent skill challenge that is meant to simulate some pressing threat. In my two attempts at this, the pressing threat has been pursuit by the denizens of the dungeon, but it could be an environmental danger, traps, a competing group, or anything else.
This lets me put in rooms and features that I could never draw. The dungeon can become larger and more complicated than a sheet of graph paper could portray. There are no hard boundaries to the structure; the party could literally never explore it all, nor clear out every last monster. The dungeon will never be safe, and completely known. Fortunately, their quest is usually not just to explore and clear but to get to perform a task within the dungeon and get back out. I can still put in empty or interesting rooms if I want, but they're not taking up room on a map. I can also take a seemingly empty area and complicate it greatly, based on the actions the PCs take in (or out of) the skill challenges.
This even works for pre-written dungeons. The path to the next room is no longer just a 5 foot hallway, but a winding branching tunnel, potentially full of hazards. If I want more monsters to come to a noisy fight, they still can, but now it's understandable if monsters from the next room don't come to investigate.
I understand the idea of exploring a dungeon, and why people might like drawing dungeons. The technique I describe has different goals, one that I don't feel standard or "old school" dungeons can really meet.