Dungeon Master's Guidance: Building a Dungeon
Whether you are wanting to try your hand at DMing for the first time or you are a seasoned pro, the process of learning how to run a great game is ongoing. There are always tips to learn, new insights to be found, and fresh ideas to inspire.
This is intended to give advice and criticism on how to make your gaming sessions the best they can be, and hopefully provide you with some creativity.
While I currently am running Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, much of the content of this could be useful for any edition, or even other game systems entirely.
Crafting a dungeon adventure
Dungeons. Quite obviously, they are one of the most core elements of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. I am going to feature here a method for creating a solid dungeon ready for adventure. Please bear in mind that this is not the only way in which you could build a dungeon, it is merely one that I have found works well.
Building a dungeon can be a very interesting and inspiring project, and there are all kinds of facets to it that you could explore. So, let's jump right in.
Step 1: Dungeon Level
First of all, you need to determine what level the dungeon is. Typically, your player characters will adventure in a dungeon of their level. Let's say in this case, you have a party of four 2nd level characters. It is important to note how many characters you expect to explore the dungeon, as this directly affects your encounter building. One of the great aspects of 4th edition is the ability to adjust for more or less characters very quickly, but we'll get into that later.
So, a level 2 dungeon it is.
Step 2: Dungeon Location and Theme(s)
The next step is to start developing what kind of dungeon this is.
What is the location or the physical construction of the dungeon? Is it a castle? A crypt? A cavern network? A mine?
What kinds of theme(s) does the dungeon have? Is it haunted by undead? Flooded with water? Overgrown by strange fungus? Warped by some strange magical effect?
These sorts of themes go on and on. Since this is a level 2 dungeon, you'll want to stick with things that low-level characters could be involved with. In other words, it probably shouldn't be the lair of an ancient dragon or a demon lord. But at level 2, defeating the chieftain of a nasty goblin tribe can still give that same great sense of satisfaction.
I'm going to pick a couple options here for my sample dungeon. I'm going with a ruin location and I'm giving it a fire theme.
Step 3: What's going on at the dungeon?
Now, dungeons are good when they have something going on at them. It can be fun just to have a random dungeon with beasties and treasure every once in awhile, but most often, there should be some kind of plot. It can tie into the campaign's main storyline, or you can use the dungeon to launch a new arc of the campaign.
In other words, the dungeon matters when the dungeon matters. In the case of my sample dungeon here, let's say that this fire theme is coming from a supernatural source. I'm going to go with an extraplanar touch here and say that in the depths of this dungeon, there is fire that leaked into the World from the Elemental Chaos. Also, there is a villain who is trying to harness this fiery power for her own. This quickly spawns an idea in my mind of an interesting villain:
Morvina Kunova. She is an arcanist whose parents were cultists to an evil entity. When she was young, the town guard, or maybe even hired adventures, slew her parents, and during the raid caught her house on fire. She was burned badly in the blaze, which was made doubly tragic because she was going to be a beautiful women. Instead, her obviously potential good looks are forever marred by horrible scars. Now, when she learns of this supernatural fire, she seeks to invoke its power and wreak revenge upon her home town or those who she feels are responsible for her parents' demise and her own grisly deformities.
Okay, we now see the basic concept of this dungeon taking shape. Let's move on to the next big step.
Step 4: Encounter building
A dungeon almost always has a series of multiple encounters. My sample dungeon here is going to be a small dungeon, so I'm going say it will have about 3 or 4 encounters. My plan is to have the following:
1 Standard Combat Encounter
1 Hard Combat Encounter
1 optional Standard Combat Encounter – meaning the characters can avoid or use their skills to circumvent combat in some way
1 Skill Challenge
The first encounter I am going to build here is actually the skill challenge. It seems like a skill challenge would be a good way to start off the adventure associated with this dungeon. Let's say the ruin this dungeon is in is actually an expansive ruin- there is a site with many decrepit stone structures. This site is located a day or two away from the town.
I am using page 72 of the Dungeon Master's guide, along with its updates from the Wizards of the Coast website.
The process of building the skill challenge is something like this:
Locating the Ruin
Skill Challenge Level 2 (XP 375)
In this skill challenge, the characters must trek from town, through wilderness, to the adventure site, and then locate the correct building amongst the various ruins.
Complexity: 3 (requires 8 successes before 3 failures).
Time Frame: 2 days
Part 1 – After 4 successes, proceed to part 2
Primary Skills: Endurance, History, Nature
Endurance (DC 12, group check): Each character makes an Endurance check to keep up stamina during the trek. If at least half of the characters succeed, a success in the challenge is gained. Each character that fails the Endurance check loses a healing surge. This group skill can only be used to gain 1 success in the challenge.
History (DC 15): The character remembers a historical tale of the location of the adventure site, likely pertaining to a time before it was a ruin.
Nature (DC 13): The character guides the party through wilderness. This helps the party stay on track and avoid natural hazards.
Secondary Skill: Perception
Perception (DC 13): The character keeps a watch out for anything which can aid the guides- natural landmarks, distant objects, or even monster tracks to avoid. Success grants the next primary skill check a +2 bonus, while failure imposes a -2 penalty.
Primary Skills: Arcana, Dungeoneering, Perception
Arcana (DC 17): Though difficult, the character senses a slight hint of elemental power, which leads the party in a general direction.
Dungeoneering (DC 13): The character inspects and appraises various stone buildings, looking for one that still has structural integrity.
Perception (DC 13): The character looks for signs that somebody came through here recently, and uses such clues to point the party in the right direction.
Secondary Skill: Athletics
Athletics (DC 13): The character clears out a section of heavy rubble, aiding the lead navigators. Success grants the next primary skill check a +2 bonus, while failure imposes a -2 penalty.
Victory: The party locates the correct structure at the ruin site. They may now enter the dungeon.
Defeat: While exploring, the party inadvertently triggers a collapse of stone. Each character is subject to an attack:
+5 vs. Reflex. Hit: 2d6 + 4 damage, and the character must succeed on an Acrobatics or Athletics check (DC 15). On a failure, the character sustains a minor wound from being trapped under heavy rock. He or she is slowed until the end of the next combat encounter.
The party may then retry the skill challenge, starting at part 2, now with complexity 1 (4 successes before 3 failures).
Now, I am going to design is the standard combat encounter. Using pages 56-57 of the Dungeon Master's guide, I determine an experience point budget for a level 2 encounter for 4 characters. I am using the Monster Manual for monsters.
Level 2 Combat Encounter (XP 500)
1 Ochre Jelly
2 Fire Beetles
The next encounter I am going to design is the hard combat encounter. This is going to be the encounter with Morvina Kunova and her lackeys, so it will be a big one. The characters will have to use their best powers. I am going with an experience point budge of a level 5 encounter.
Level 5 Combat Encounter (XP 800)
1 Human Mage
1 Human Berserker
1 Hobgoblin Warcaster
2 Spitting Drakes
Last is going to be an optional encounter. I'm going to make this one a scene in which the characters come upon a group of fire beetles threatening a pack of rats. The characters can use skills or ingenuity to avoid this encounter and gain 31 XP apiece. Some examples would be sneaking around the monsters (group Stealth check DC 13), or secretly instigating a fight between the two groups (group check, each character uses Bluff or Nature, DC 13). Or, the characters can fight the monsters.
Level 3 Combat Encounter (XP 600)
3 Fire Beetles
2 Dire Rats
4 Giant Rats
Step 5: Drawing the Dungeon Map
As an artist, I really love this step of the process. If you are not proficient at drawing, use the lines on the graph paper or grid to help you, hold your hand steady, and just give it your best. Don't worry too much, your players will be happy just getting the basic idea of the layout of the encounter rooms, and they will fill in the rest with their imaginations.
I am going to show a quick overview of the drawing process. I'll keep my drawing very simple.
(see inserted photo)
Step 6: Treasure
Using the DMG (pages 124-126), I next determine how much treasure I want to be in this dungeon. It seems logical, based upon what is occurring, that Morvina and her group should have most of the treasure here. They have probably searched around the dungeon already, plus, it will give me a chance to equip her with a cool magic item.
Step 7: Fleshing Out the Dungeon
In this final step, I basically go over everything I've noted down and drawn out. I look for areas of opportunity to develop the dungeon and fill in details. Again, I'm not getting too elaborate in this dungeon, so I'll touch base on just a few main points.
First, I selected a fire theme, so let's put in some fire! Right when the characters first come in, they should notice these fiery motes hanging in the air. Not only do they provide illumination, but they can burn. Since this is a level 2 dungeon, let's say that any creature who enters a square containing fire motes or ends their turn there, takes 5 fire damage (max 1/round). As a standard action, a character trained in Arcana can make an Arcana check (DC 15) to extinguish all motes in a room or corridor for 5 minutes. Rolling a 10 or lower causes the character to get burned for 1d6 + 5 fire damage. As well, as a move action, a character can move through a space with fire motes at half speed without harm by succeeding on a DC 15 Acrobatics check.
I've decided to fill both the left and right corridors with the fire motes, to really spice up the fiery nature of this place, and make things feel more dangerous.
Now, let's put the elemental flame at the very final room. Since this fire is very hot and strong, I'll say it deals 2d4 + 5 fire damage. The skill check to extinguish it simply can't work during combat, and no one can slip past it with Acrobatics.
Since this is the power site, let's say that outside of combat a character trained in Arcana can attempt to manipulate the flame. This Arcana check requires 10 minutes of study and interaction, and is DC 20. A character that succeeds can choose either harness the flame's power or extinguish it.
A character that harnesses the power gains the following daily attack power:
Close blast 5 or Area burst 2 within 10 squares (targets each creature). +7 vs. Reflex. Hit: 2d6 + 5 fire damage. Miss: half damage. Special: You can increase the power's damage to 4d6 + 5 fire damage, but doing so causes you to lose the power until you harness the elemental flame once again.
This power is the equivalent of a level 4 magic item.
A character that extinguishes the elemental flame causes it to burn out forever, though it leaves behind a small pile of crystalized fire salts, which are 170 gp worth of alchemical reagents.
A character that fails the Arcana check cannot retry until he or she gains a level. If the character rolls a 15 or lower, he or she also takes 3d6 + 5 fire damage
Now, to populate the rooms...
This first room I made to run the standard encounter in. I'll have the beetles milling about, and the ooze in the ruined wall-burrow.
The very middle room seems a good place to put the optional encounter. I'll split the two monster groups.
The final room is for the hard encounter- Morvina and her lackeys. The floor is caved in at an area, causing a 10-foot-deep pit. There is a narrow stone bridge which requires a DC 10 Acrobatics check to balance across. Morvina is likely right by the elemental flame, with the hobgoblin warcaster nearby. The berserker is by the bridge, and the drakes guard the entryway.
Morvina is aware of the secret passageway, and may use it to flee if things get too ugly. She may even get away and go on to become a recurring villain in the campaign. Otherwise, finding the hidden passage requires a DC 15 Perception check.
So, we have this dungeon pretty well fleshed out. You could do more with it, but it's really your preference how complex you want things to get. For example, that empty room in the entry chamber might by locked and contain Morvina's storage or even a sleeping area. Or, maybe it is sealed tightly and she never even got into it. Maybe there is a stairway which leads down deeper into a new level of the dungeon. Also, you could spend time crafting more of Morvina's backstory, or writing a more about her current agenda. Or you could write a background about the dungeon site and how the elemental flame appeared. Did a cult used to dwell here, performing rites to a primordial of fire? Did a powerful fire mage perform arcane experiments here? The possibilities are vast. But for now, I'll leave things as is. This dungeon is set to provide a solid night of gaming.
Types of Adventures
The final thought I'd like to leave you with is that adventures come in many forms. They are as varied as there are types of films and books. If we were to look at the various formats such as action, drama, horror, or suspense & mystery, we quickly become informed of the elements that drive storytelling.
In this video, we looked at a single type of adventure: the dungeon-based adventure, sometimes known as the “dungeon crawl”. I must stress that this is but one type of adventure out of many that someone could run. I am focusing on the dungeon adventure first because I feel it is one of the most fundamental types of adventures to build. It is arguably the most core building block for the game. Even though I love to explore deeper styles of play, I cannot deny that the dungeon adventure has a sense of familiarity to it that I adore. And I know I am not alone there. So, we journey together, bold adventurers!
Until we meet again, keep tending to the flame that burns deep within.
* Click here to see the video version of this post (which is its original format, on my YouTube channel) *