Dungeons, so important to D&D they’re listed before the game’s iconic Dragons. Indeed, the original game is based around delving multi-level underground complexes with each level’s number assigned to the appropriate character level. At the end of your dungeon, you would place the titular dragon. I know more than a couple of DMs that don’t love dungeons. In fact, I used to be one of those DMs. There are certainly many published dungeons and official advice on building dungeons that are not so great. I remember not liking dungeons as a player or a DM. They seemed contrived, arbitrary, and in many ways non-sensical. I still feel that way about the funhouse sub-genre of dungeons. It’s the Rube Goldberg version of a trap to kill adventurers. But there are good dungeons, so how did these people build better dungeons?
But, over time, I did find great examples of dungeons. Dungeons like the Moathouse from Village of Hommlet, the backstreets and slaver tunnels of Sellswords of Punjar, and one of D&D 4e’s most useful products for DMs, Dungeon Delve. Then I incorporated what I learned from those dungeons into my creations. Dungeons I’ve received a lot of praise from different players over the years for being engaging, different, full of variety, but also feeling rooted in the world. It makes you wonder then, why isn’t that the default for dungeons? Why are so many dungeons so bad?
The History of D&D Dungeons
In original D&D, dungeons function strangely. The idea is that a singular dungeon would comprise a significant portion, if not the entirety, of your character’s campaign life. Parties would raid dungeons, delve for a bit, then pack it up and head home with their loot. They’d sell off the spoils, rest, level up, and resupply before doing it all again. I like many things about the Caves of Chaos, but the idea the party can just waltz in and out of the adventure site with little to no repercussions is ridiculous to me. Of course, so is the suggestion THAT many unaligned factions co-exist in such proximity.
In later decades and editions, D&D moved dungeons away from the central focus of play. Instead, focusing on longer adventure paths and published campaigns that might have some dungeons in them, but that was just where the designers locked away the plot coupons for the overarching story. Go to a place, have a couple of combats, disarm a few traps, solve a puzzle, kill the BBEG, and bring back the MacGuffin. The dungeon became a series of rooms, a gauntlet of individual challenges the adventuring party needed to overcome to get the key that unlocks more of the campaign’s story.
Given where dungeons started and where they are now, it’s not surprising that the examples and advice for building better dungeons are all over the place. To help out DMs, new and old master your dungeons, I’ve compiled some of the dungeon building lessons I’ve learned over the years. We’ll break it up into Planning Better Dungeons, Better Dungeon Layout, Better Dungeon Content, and creating Better Dungeons Through Intentional Opportunities.
Real Play Example of a Building Better Dungeons
I thought it would be fun to test the most recent dungeon I built for a campaign against these metrics to see if I measure up to the advice when building my own dungeons. I hope it goes well, or this could be very embarrassing! The party has almost finished the dungeon in question, and they should finish it by the end of the next session, so I don’t need to worry about anyone reading something they shouldn’t by the time this is posted.
Planning to Build Better Dungeons
Most Dungeon Masters have a love-hate relationship when it comes to planning and prepping, and for a good reason. Preparing for a game often doesn’t bear fruit because it’s impossible to anticipate the whims of your players and the chaos of the dice. But, as the old saying goes, plans are worthless but planning is indispensable. By spending our time and energy as DMs prepping in the right ways, we can set ourselves up with the tools to improvise fluently. To start planning to build better dungeons, we must nail down the scope.
A good starter example for building better dungeons is the 5 Room Dungeon. This basic approach to dungeon building is meant to cover about one session of gameplay. For neophyte DMs, I think the 5 Room Dungeon is the gold standard for learning the dungeon design ropes. It’s small enough you can’t screw it up too bad, and if you create them as one-short scenarios, they’re the perfect way to get a new DM comfortable behind the screen.
But what if you want to run more than one session in a dungeon? It may seem strange at first, but I believe the core of building better dungeons is determining how long you want to run a dungeon. Personally, I don’t want to make a dungeon too short that it feels like a speed bump in the campaign, but also not so long that my players get bored of dungeon delving. While every group is different, an average group covers 4-5 dungeon chambers in a standard 3-4 hour game of straight dungeon delving.
Taking 4.5 chambers into consideration per session, we can cross-reference that with the 5e guidelines for character leveling. According to the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide, we expect player characters to level approximately every four sessions. Suppose we want to make a level-up dungeon that’s four sessions or ~18 chambers. That gives us all the information we need to create an XP budget for our dungeon. Take the total XP to reach the next party level and divide it by 18. That’s the average XP per dungeon chamber.
You can also use this information to determine the type and number of magic items to add to your dungeon. In the DMG, page 38, you have the expected number of magic items for PCs at each level. Subtracting the magic items the party already has, you can quickly determine what to put in your dungeon.
As you can see, knowing how long you want to run the dungeon immediately informs a lot of the planning for your dungeon.
My Dungeon’s Scope
Well, I’m about where I expected to be here. I have 12 chambers in my dungeon, and the party will level up upon completing the dungeon. They did investigative footwork and plenty of social encounters before reaching the dungeon, so they’ve more than earned the level up. I use milestone leveling instead of experience points because I feel it serves the game’s flow better than leveling up in the middle of a dungeon/adventure. But, you can see it still fits pretty closely in line.
I also provided a powerful magic item for the Ranger. Because the party lacks a full-time healer, I provided the Ranger with the first magic weapon, which also provides extra healing when they get access to Cure Wounds at the end of the dungeon. So as far as scope goes, my real-world dungeon gets top marks!
Build Better Dungeons Through Archetypes
As it turns out, there are only three archetypal dungeons you can create in Dungeons & Dragons. Identifying, understanding, and leaning on the dungeon archetypes is critical to becoming a better dungeon constructor. The three dungeon archetypes are Natural Structure, Complex, and Vault.
A natural structure dungeon is any type of organic dungeon that’s not crafted by intelligent minds and hands. Caves and caverns are the first examples that spring to mind, but they could also be the insides of a living creature a la the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s Lord Jabu-Jabu and Deku Tree.
The limit to natural structure dungeons is often your mind. Many exploration portions of adventures can be turned into natural structure dungeons. Swamps, feywild forests, and passing through a mountain range are all examples of wilderness I’ve turned into node-based, natural structure dungeons with success.
A complex dungeon is any place built for people to work or reside. Castles and temples are common examples. But, complex dungeons can vary wildly in size and form. It could be a wizard tower, a mine, a large castle, or even an entire city ward. Sellswords of Punjar is one of my favorite level-one city adventures, and it’s a complex dungeon that has the party zipping through alleyways, buildings, rooftops, and gardens.
Don’t forget to include manufacturing and research facilities as well. A top-secret laboratory doing unethical experiments is always a crowd-pleaser. Even something mundane like a shipyard can be a lot of fun for the party to infiltrate and sneak around.
One thing that sets complex dungeons apart is that they need to meet the needs of their creators. Often that means places to rest, access to food and water, some form of sanitation or health, and space for leisure activity. So consider when creating a complex if this is an all-inclusive dungeon such as a remote monastery where people live and work, or it’s a workplace. A factory dungeon might have a nearby settlement or housing that is outside the dungeon structure, but the party may want/need to visit.
The third type of archetypal dungeon is the vault, and its inverse, the prison. A vault serves one purpose, to protect something inside from people outside. Crypts, banks, treasuries, and warehouses all do that. Of course, a prison protects the outside from what’s inside. Prisons, sealed portals, BBEGs locked in stasis all are good examples of an inverted vault archetype.
One exciting part about vaults that sets them apart from natural structures and complex dungeons is that they are more likely to be stuffed with misdirection, secret passages, magical defenses, traps, and eternal defenders such as constructs and undead. I would also lump funhouse or deathtrap dungeons into this archetype.
My Dungeon’s Archetype
One great part about wrapping your head around dungeon archetypes is that you can learn how to mix them. Later on, we’ll discuss how zones can help you build better dungeons, and using different archetypes is a fine way to distinguish zone transitions.
My current dungeon is a natural cave network partially worked by ancient dwarves into a proto-cistern with a step-well. They abandoned the site and created a cistern in a different location a few miles away. The dungeon is about 85% natural structure and 15% complex.
Build Better Dungeons with the 6W’s
The six questions to ask yourself when starting to plan a dungeon. They’re good questions to ask yourself for any preparation as a Dungeon Master. Of course, the questions are: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and hoW.
Here are some starter 6W Questions to Build Better Dungeons
- Who created this dungeon?
- What is the dungeon’s purpose?
- When was the dungeon created/found?
- Where is the dungeon located?
- Why is the dungeon an issue?
- How can the party reach the dungeon?
These are just some of the questions you should ask yourself when constructing your dungeon. Answering the questions often leads to more questions for you to answer. For example, answering where a dungeon is built with “a mountaintop” may lead to how and why was it placed there? You might say it was created as a very defensible hard-to-access location by Aarakocra, who have no issue flying up to the aerie’s entrance. Just answering a few questions can make your dungeon concept more concrete in your mind.
You could decide the aerie is vertical in orientation and lacks any stairs or ramps to reach different levels because the dungeon creators had wings, leaving your party in a fascinating dungeon location where they will need climbing kits to explore the aerie.
And always look for ways to ground the dungeon in the world. Who knows about the dungeon, its location in relevance to nearby points of interest, and what effect does it have on the people and creatures that live in its shadow?
My Dungeon’s 6W’s
As shown above, there was already a narrative around the dungeon and how it fits into the local landscape in a way that makes sense. In fact, the locals didn’t even know the proto-cistern existed, only that the pests afflicting the region were most concentrated in this one area. The party already knew about the dwarven cistern some miles away, so they were not surprised to find another similar structure hidden in the same mountainous area.
The dungeon includes one bizarre cavern covered in a fleshy substance explained by the creatures within the dungeon and their effect on the natural structure. Unfortunately, the party has not put those puzzle pieces together. The dungeon also has a background plot I’ve talked about in a previous post. So, I’d say I’ve done an excellent job of asking myself the essential 6W questions and feel very confident improvising information in and around the dungeon.
Dungeon Creators, Purpose, and Inhabitants
As you focus on improving your planning to build better dungeons, you’ll find that you naturally address some of these points in the process. So, who made your dungeon and why? Even natural structures are formed by some force, even if that’s erosion or an earthquake. But, most archetypal dungeons are at least partially constructed by sentient beings to some end, whether to serve as a cistern, a homunculi research facility, or fortified keep.
Once you have your dungeon creator and purpose, you need to determine if the creators are still around. If the answer is no, what happened to them? Of course, nature abhors a vacuum, so if the creators are absent, or even sometimes if they’re still around, something else may take up residence in the dungeon.
Better Dungeons Through Factions
If you really want to start creating high-quality, dynamic dungeons, you need to invest in planning distinct factions within your dungeon. The Keep on the Borderlands, Caves of Chaos, hosts a litany of factions that are at odds with each other. Even the Cragmaw Hideout from the Mines of Phandelver has two separate factions at play.
Factions allow you to expand the roster of monsters in your dungeon, so it’s not five orc encounters in a row. Plus, they create friction in the dungeon. Clever players will often find ways to exploit the factions and put them against each other for the party’s benefit. Each faction should have a goal, motivation, and defined relationship with the other factions of your dungeon. Personally, I find 2-3 factions to be the right number for most dungeons. It creates a relationship web without becoming difficult to manage. If you add a fourth faction, the number of relationships you have to track goes from three to nine, and that can be a pain to manage and for your players to remember.
Once you have factions with goals, motivations, and relationships, you can improvise just about any situation that could arise during gameplay.
My Dungeon Creators, Purpose, and Inhabitants
The creators of my recent dungeon are the natural erosion of wind and water and the ancient dwarves. The purpose is pretty straightforward; it was a water source for ancient dwarves in the area. There is no evidence left of a dwarven settlement in the area, so it does not appear this was a grand city, probably a village of timber from the plentiful evergreen trees in the area. The settlement eroded long ago, leaving only the protected step-well inside the cavern as evidence of settlement.
Currently, the inhabitants consist of the flying terrors that sail through the night skies attacking people (vargouilles). They are connected to other mutated humanoids in the cavern, and they are being transformed by weird star metal fragments. These mutants include malformed vargouilles, a rutterkin, and reskinned lemures. That’s the first faction.
The second faction is where those mutated humanoids originate. Within the natural chambers of the dungeon is a small contingent of grimlocks. Are they distant descendants of the original dwarves, like Skyrim’s Falmer to elves? Maybe, the party hasn’t asked, and I want to let that decision organically happen if it comes up.
The last faction is the step-well guardian long ago put into stasis by the dwarves through a bit of magi-tech. It is a roper that sleeps above the step-well until woken by removing a faintly glowing crystal from a control panel apparatus. The PCs being PCs, of course, snatched up the glowing gem and woke the roper. They strung that combat into one with the first faction to create a three-way fight. It was tense, and the roper nearly won the day, singlehandedly dispatching the monsters from the first faction in the middle of combat.
Multiple factions work well, and I always try to include them in my dungeons and determine how they react to each other. I love player reactions when they watch one group of monsters rip through another like tissue paper. They’re both happy the extra monsters are gone and fearful about the remaining monsters going after the PCs next.
I had to come back and add in the fourth faction that I forgot in the original draft. There are spiders at the cave entrance munching on the vargouilles as they fly out of the cave each night and any infected humanoids attempting to reach the rutterkin and the star metal shards. The spiders are chaotic hungry like the roper, so I consider them the same “faction.”
Build Better Dungeons: Dungeon Condition
Spending time in your dungeon planning to think about the condition of your dungeon is extremely worthwhile. You can lean into it, like the dungeon archetypes, to create a more cohesive and immersive dungeon experience for your players. The first consideration is your dungeon’s age, how long it has been around, and its upkeep status.
Consider the major difference between a brand new vault-style dungeon and one that’s centuries old and in disrepair. Maybe the construct defenders have gone haywire or achieved sentience. All the mundane and magic traps and tricks are either extinguished while killing previous intruders or without upkeep are now extra dangerous, like unexploded munitions and wild magic surges.
Also, consider the needs of living creatures for your dungeons. How are they able to keep water and food in supply. Do they have a place to dispose of their waste and sleep? As those conditions deteriorate, they are going to have issues. The same is true for enemies like constructs, undead, and elementals. Summoning could go wrong. The undead could suffer from The Walking Dead rotten melon heads where even a mediocre hit will crumple them. Constructs can seize up or start misbehaving. Elementals might go wild or be shadows of their former power without access to their home plane’s energy.
Pro Tip: Showcasing a dungeon littered with the remains of old monsters with no discernible battle damage quickly can put your characters into paranoia as they try to figure out what killed all these monsters. They could have just died from starvation or gone inert because their magic batteries ran out of juice.
Tricks & Traps vs. Obstacles & Hazards
As we briefly touched upon, age and upkeep are important to consider to add a layer of verisimilitude to your dungeon. I like to consider the condition of the dungeon. Is it pristine, good, OK, neglected, or ruined/forgotten? That informs me what ratio of traps and tricks I should use compared to obstacles and hazards.
- Pristine 100% Traps & Tricks
- Good 80% Traps & Tricks
- OK 50% Traps & Tricks/Obstacles & Hazards
- Neglected 80% Obstacles & Hazards
- Ruined/Forgotten 100% Obstacles & Hazards
Even a pristine constructed dungeon like an Underdark forge situated among lava channels shouldn’t have any natural obstacles or hazards that the party needs to challenge. Each lava channel should have a serviceable and trustworthy bridge if meant to be crossed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a ruined Underdark forge may have plenty of traps, but those traps have either been long triggered, gone inert, or become dysfunctional to the point they are more an obstacle or hazard than a purposeful trap or trick.
My Dungeon’s Condition
The ancient dwarven constructions in my dungeon fall into the category of ruins. It prominently features a crumbled spiral staircase that is dangerous to use and missing sections. The only constructed trap in the dungeon is the roper above the step-well. While the crystal powering the control panel is working, it’s on its last charge. Once the PCs remove the crystal, powering down the stasis on the roper, they cannot reinstate the stasis field again.
There are obstacles and hazards such as slippery inclines/declines, multiple vertical elevation shifts in the dungeon that require climbing/descending, and tight squeezing passages. There are shrieking mushrooms, a hazardous area of surging and receding water, and the fleshy floor of one chamber that tries to pull PCs to the ground if they stand still. So, plenty of obstacles and hazards. The exploration pillar is my favorite part of the game, so I try to make my dungeons a lot of fun to traverse.
For example, just placing a drop that’s too far for a character to jump is an obstacle (and fall hazard) means the PCs have to get creative. Or, by sliding down a slick decline, they’re cutting off their own ability to backtrack quickly. So, of course, that’s where I hit them with one of the most brutal combat encounters, so they can only retreat by escaping forward into an unknown part of the dungeon! I’ll give myself an A+ for dungeon condition, tricks, traps, hazards, and obstacles.
Build Better Dungeons: Why are the adventurers needed?
A common mistake I’ve seen when new DMs create dungeons is a lack of motivation. It’s a problem with many neophyte DM adventures in general. And to well hook your players and their characters into a dungeon, you just need to tick a few boxes.
First, your dungeon has to present some credible threat to the quest giver or surrounding locale if it’s a “found” dungeon. What is going to keep your party from blowing off this dungeon? There needs to be a clear and obvious consequence for the party’s inaction. That could be making it clear that the goblins have taken prisoners back to their lair or knowing that if they don’t destroy the monstrous spider’s eggs, the brood will make the only road through the forest impassable.
Second, you need to make sure the goal for your adventurers is clear. Are they supposed to kill all the monsters, stop the ritual, rescue the prisoners, steal back the protective idol? Your players shouldn’t be confused about why they’re delving into the dungeon.
Third, to build better dungeons ensure you provide a reason for why this task falls to adventurers. Why would the local baron hire adventurers to deal with this problem if they have a hundred professional warriors they could enlist to take care of this issue. The reason you give doesn’t need to be that well constructed; it’s Fridge Logic. Often just stating that the 100 warriors are busy with a border skirmish is more than good enough. What border, with who, why? None of that’s essential.
Fourth, create a solid motivation for your player characters to care about taking on the task. In THIS POST, I talk more about adding personal motivations to adventures to help players bite on your adventure hooks. The same applies here.
You want to avoid the players walking away from the dungeon while they’re halfway through in an “I’m not getting paid enough for this” moment or worse, not even entering the dungeon. Often this means offering motivation that’s not related to money. Maybe it’s a magic item, a favor, or status, reputation, or introduction to someone important that will be better motivation than any amount of GP.
But, if you can tick these four boxes when it comes to your dungeon, you can often ensure your players decide to bite down on your dungeon’s adventure hook.
My Dungeon’s Adventurer Needs
Well, I think I’ve explained the credible threat of my most recent dungeon pretty well already. The head hunters are spewing forth from the dungeon every night and terrorizing the countryside, killing people or turning them into more vargouilles.
The goal was clear after meeting with the local baronet and her majordomo. Find and confirm the head hunter lair’s location. Yep, the goal of my dungeon’s adventure was literally finding the dungeon. But, I was confident that they wouldn’t leave well enough alone once I put the dungeon in front of the party.
This task fell to adventurers because the local lord’s warriors are busy with several potential adventure issues in the area, mostly fighting monsters on trade roads. Plus, there’s the looming threat of war with another noble. The location has plenty of pioneer/mountain men/trappers to assist, and they need the adventurers because they’re not trained warriors.
I’ve lucked out with a player character who is out to make their name as an adventurer. So, motivation so far has not been a problem in the campaign. Mysterious monsters terrorizing the land and a little bit of pocket money were enough to get the party on the hook. They also had an opportunity to meet many of the NPCs in the settlement and develop a rapport. They don’t particularly want to see them suffer.
Once they reached the dungeon, remember they were only supposed to find the dungeon (that’s why the payment isn’t much), I tempted them with an excellent magic item in the very first chamber. Then they were motivated to see what else they might find if they plumbed the depths.
Overall, I’d give myself a B grade when it comes to motivation. I could have done more work to make this a more personal mission to one of the PCs, but they are both strangers in the area, and I didn’t feel I would need it. I’d instead save the personal motivations for a different adventure down the line.
Using Maps to Build Better Dungeons
Mapmaking is pretty standard Dungeon Master advice, but it bears repeating: always make a map for your adventures, especially dungeons. Even for high-improv DMs, I believe creating a map is one of the most important tasks you can do in prep. What it does is take the abstraction of your dungeon and force it into a spatial relationship. Grounding your dungeon in a contextual space immediately helps you build better dungeons and give you a better understanding of the dungeon’s layout and how the party can interact with it.
That being said, I very rarely pull out the grid paper to make maps. Because of the way D&D 5e works, especially playing online, I run theater of the mind nigh exclusively. So instead of spending time making a nice-looking grid map, I create node maps, more similar to a mind map or flow chart. They still provide me the context of how the dungeon spaces relate to each other without all the extra work that wouldn’t benefit my current DM style.
These node maps or “point crawl” maps work exceptionally well for non-traditional dungeons. So if you’re trying to build better dungeons that are forests or cities, creating a full 5×5 square map of a vast space like that would be a massive waste of time. But, a node map instead provides how each “chamber” flows into the next one, and the inclusion of loops and other bits we’ll discuss in the Layout section can create that sense of wandering and accidentally walking in circles.
Another key point is to keep your dungeon map or at least the map of each level/zone of a large dungeon on a single sheet of paper. Single page mapping is easy to do with a node map (another plus) but can be more challenging with 5×5 or even 10×10 grid maps.
My Dungeon Map
Unsurprisingly, I created a node map for my dungeon. It has twelve chambers, and I indeed scribbled it down on a small notepad during a break at work. One of the strengths of a node map is that you can also create a cross-section map of your dungeon. And since my dungeon includes multiple levels of elevation, it made sense to do it in a cross-section. Otherwise, it would look like a Zelda dungeon map with six different floors; confusing.
As usual, it has worked great. It sits off to the side of my notes when I’m running, and each chamber has a number referenced in my notes, so they’re easy to flip through to the right section and get the description bullet points, room contents, and any specialty mechanic info. I never have difficulty tracing where the PCs are or that I’m reading the wrong room’s info. Final grade: A+
Using Timers to Build Better Dungeons
Including timers in your adventure design is what I would consider an intermediate DM skill. New DMs should be more concerned with getting a handle on the skeleton of an adventure and how to improvise along with what shenanigans your players pull. But, if you stay behind the screen and put in the work, you will be looking for ways to improve your adventures and be a better DM. You may even want to, I don’t know, Build Better Dungeons. And making timers part of your adventure design is definitely one of those tricks.
I believe resource management is integral to excellent dungeon design. Creating a hard time limit to your adventure helps build better dungeons because resting becomes a limited resource for your players. There will be situations where they cannot, or at least will be ill-advised, to take rests.
Examples include having a dungeon that’s only accessible during the full moon. That means they have one night to get in and out, or they’ll be stuck. There’s always the classic must stop the ritual from being completed. Both of these examples have clear examples of what happens if the PCs fail.
Now, what sets apart an OK DM and a great DM is the point of failure. And OK DM will fudge or give the advantage to PCs so they can succeed. But a great DM? A great DM prepares for the players to fail, even wants the players to fail. Not because they want to “win D&D” but because maybe the story’s more interesting if the ritual happens and the unspeakable evil is released, and now the PCs are trying to put everything back in Pandora’s Box. Or, they don’t make it out of the dungeon before the morning after the full moon, and they get stuck.
That dungeon could teleport across the world or shift to another plane, and now the party has a few weeks to survive and adventure in a strange new location before rushing back to the dungeon for the next full moon to get back home. Honestly, that sounds like a great first adventure for a new campaign. I’m writing that down.
Timers in My Dungeon
I actually have two timers in my dungeon. The first is the day/night cycle. The head hunters are nocturnal. So after sunset, they fly out of the dungeon to terrorize the countryside. The party entered the dungeon during this time and started exploring. Between combat and some poor exploration rolls leading to injury, they needed to rest. Unfortunately, taking a long rest allowed the vargouille to return, making the dungeon significantly more dangerous.
The second timer I have is the surging water level in the dungeon. As the party spends time in the dungeon, the water level rises and falls multiple times. When the water recedes, it reveals new dungeon areas and a second entrance/exit to the dungeon. If they screw around, they could get caught up in the surging water and be injured or even drown.
As far as completing the dungeon, there’s not a hard time limit. They know that the longer the party takes to clear the dungeon, the more people will die. When they rested, their pioneer guide party was attacked outside of the dungeon, and they had to watch the fight from a distance, unable to help.
Overall I’d give my dungeon a C+ on timers. There are dynamic elements that change the access and threat of the dungeon, but no hard deadline that forces them to forego resting.
Build Better Dungeons by Including a Background Plot
As players and DMs, sometimes we get wrapped up in dungeon crawling and forget that the rest of the world keeps turning as the party spends hours, days, even weeks dealing with the dungeon. You can build better dungeons by including some form of a background plot or story that continues to develop while the dungeon is being delved.
This backstory keeps the world feeling fresh and lived in while the players are busy in a tiny corner of it. A background plot also helps out if you’re running the type of game where the party will commute multiple times between town and the dungeon to sell and resupply. It ensures something is constantly changing about the world even though the player characters aren’t involved.
Another way a background plot helps is by giving you something to fall back on if you didn’t get/keep your players on the dungeon’s adventure hook. That’s fine because there’s already something else going on that they can jump into as an adventure.
My Dungeon Background Plot
I developed the local adventure area as a sandbox, unsure what the players would take as adventure bait. A lot is going on in the area. But, the primary background plot is the political tension of the area.
It was fantastic because one of the pioneer NPCs accompanying them was outspoken against the local lord. So while they were searching for the dungeon, they had opportunities to speak with the NPCs about the situation. The party discovered the political issue is a lot more gray than they had initially thought and now don’t 100% disagree with the pioneer NPC’s stance.
The party doesn’t know (terrible perception checks) that the pack llamas accompanying them are loaded with arms and armor for the opposing lord. So if the party abandoned the dungeon, they would still need to deal with their guides smuggling arms and armor to their employer’s political opposition.
Final grade: A+. While I didn’t envision and intend for this campaign to become politically driven, it is nice to have a complex setting with issues beyond monsters bad and place players in situations where they may need to choose sides between NPCs they like.
We’ve talked a lot about building better dungeons by being more focused and intentional in planning them. Now, it’s time to look at the layout of dungeons and who we can change them to create a better experience for our players.
Building Better Dungeon Layouts
If you have an old dungeon map or two, grab them to follow along with me and the map from my most recent dungeon. Or, grab a new piece of paper to sketch out a grid or node dungeon map to practice these techniques.
Use Multiple Entrances/Exits
One of the problems with creating a dungeon that only has one way in and out is that sealing up the entrance can be as effective as clearing out the dungeon. Why fight a bunch of monsters when you can cave-in the only exit to the cavern system?
Another issue with one entrance dungeons is that they propagate linear dungeon design. It’s a single line between the entrance and the end of the dungeon. This linear design often robs your players of making meaningful choices in exploring your dungeon because it’s a Point A to Point B affair.
Having at least two points of ingress/egress from your dungeon makes all the difference in the world. Clever players may scout around and find an alternate entrance to the dungeon that may be less-guarded or closer to their goal. It also means there’s less backtracking in a dungeon to exit.
It’s also important to remember that the party isn’t the only one who can use the exits of your dungeon. Reinforcements can enter different areas, and even your villain can flee via a secondary exit if things get too hot for them.
My Dungeon’s Exits
My most recent dungeon has three methods of ingress/egress. First is the big cave mouth, the way the party and the vargouilles enter and exit the dungeon. The second is a hole in the central chimney of the dungeon. The players went up the stairs here and found an overgrown arbor and were able to rest unaccosted.
The last entrance/exit of the dungeon is through the passage revealed when the water level recedes. By exiting through the bottom of the dungeon’s step-well, the player characters can follow an underground path to the bottom of a nearby abandoned well. I would give my dungeon a B+ because the well entrance could be more tactically advantageous.
Using Zones & Levels to Build Better Dungeons
Few things are more helpful for building large dungeons than using zones or levels. Creating distinct, thematic areas in large dungeons help to signify to players that they have transitioned. The transition may be physical space, such as a floor/level of the dungeon. It may be the difficulty of the challenges or even noting a change in the inhabitants.
You can use zones to create a web of smaller, interconnected dungeons. Consider each zone as an independent mini-dungeon with one or more of your factions and monsters/challenges specific to the area. These zones can be punctuated by creating dungeons where different areas fit different dungeon archetypes. Maybe the dungeon is a monastery, but it’s also the caverns below the monastery, the valley outside the cavern system, so on and so forth.
My Dungeon’s Areas
Zones are best implemented in larger dungeons, and with my dungeon only being 12 chambers, there wasn’t much room or need for creating distinct zones. Still, there are different sections. There are separate areas that host the vargouille, rutterkin, and mutants, a place for the grimlocks, and the roper placed in stasis by the ancient dwarves.
All in all, I’d give my dungeon a C grade. There is some zoning in the dungeon, but I could have made it more distinct, even without increasing the size of the dungeon.
Loops & Avoiding Linear Routes
Most new Dungeon Masters create dungeons that are straight lines. Even the iconic 5-room dungeon approach often creates a dungeon that is a straight line or a branching path that doesn’t create a lot of options for dungeon exploration. And every DM knows that the Exploration pillar of Dungeons & Dragons needs the most love in people’s games.
Creating dungeons with looped passages will make your dungeons feel less like Point A to Point B railroads. Your players will have a more organic sense of exploration in your dungeons and better understand their layout. Creating non-linear routes in your dungeon allows the party to access blocked areas, circumvent challenges, find alternate paths to the same chambers, and even ambush baddies. It will help you build better dungeons that entice your players to explore and reward them for doing so.
Just remember that the bad guys can also take advantage of looped layouts and have the advantage of knowing the dungeon floorplan. Loops allow you to have reinforcements and wandering monsters show up behind the adventurers in areas they thought were cleared out and safe.
Loops in My Dungeon
My most recent dungeon is primarily one big, multi-elevation, vertical loop with tangent path spurs. And the party made use of the loop. They went about halfway around the loop, then stopped, backtracked, and started going around the loop from the other direction. So I would say mission accomplished.
I would give my dungeon a B grade for loops. There’s only one large loop when I could have instead made 2-3 smaller loops in a Venn Diagram style arrangement. Hard to do with a smaller dungeon, but even the single loop approach proved effective at the table.
Build Better Dungeons Through Elevation
If you’re serious about building better dungeons, one of the best things you can do to improve your dungeon layout is remembering to utilize the z-axis. Great dungeons use verticality to explore 3d space, adding an entirely new aspect to your players’ experience.
Of course, traversal is essential. Using elevation in your dungeon’s passages makes it easier and more difficult in some cases to get from one part of your dungeon to the next. But, you should also consider adding elevations within your dungeon chambers. Galleries, balconies, mezzanines, and lofts create vertical space within a dungeon chamber to create interest.
Archers on a mezzanine firing down on the party or having a monster escape by leaping up to a balcony and running off to an unexplored part of the dungeon are two examples of how to create interest with elevation in a single dungeon chamber. Spiral staircases, chimneys/shafts, and ladders are just a few more examples of adding elevation and creating new traversal methods in your dungeon.
Elevation in My Dungeon
I’m a huge proponent of adding elevation to dungeons, and I rarely create a dungeon that doesn’t have elevation baked into the core layout. My most recent dungeon is no exception. The primary loop of the dungeon is a vertical elevation loop. The party needs to climb partway up a cliff just to access the dungeon through its cave mouth.
I especially wanted to use elevation in this dungeon because it’s full of flying monsters that do not need stairs, ladders, or ramps to get from top to bottom. I wanted the players to feel, even though the dungeon is subterranean like they were at a distinct disadvantage exploring it because they don’t have wings. Monsters can easily attack and escape by going up or down in the dungeon.
I’m going to give myself an A+ for elevation. I not only included it in the dungeon layout, it was the primary design intent for the dungeon and everything in it.
Design Better Dungeon Chambers
Another spot where new Dungeon Masters often stumble when they build dungeons is the chambers. Many professional, published dungeons also suffer the same. The dungeons chambers are often similar to the point of being difficult to differentiate for players, and they’re often boring with little thought to the dimensions or purpose.
Because of our archetypes, we know sentient creatures create 2/3rds of all dungeons. And, of the remaining third, most are stocked with monsters of at least some basic intelligence and community. So there’s no excuse not to have both spaces thoughtfully laid out with clear purpose.
Dungeon Chamber Purpose
How do the dungeon inhabitants utilize this space? Is it storage, a sleeping area, where do they dispose of their waste? As a home, the more rooms your dungeon has, the more specific the purpose of those rooms will be. A one-room hut has to be utilitarian; it’s general purpose. A hundred-room mansion may have a larder, buttery, wine cellar, root cellar, a pantry, maybe a smokehouse, and that’s just for food storage.
Dungeon Chamber Dimensions
Also, think about the size and shape of your dungeon chambers. Larger chambers tend to be public-oriented with multiple access points, while small chambers tend to be private with often only one access point.
Consider the difference between a home’s living room and something like a bedroom or bathroom. A living room is for entertaining guests and is often the largest room in a person’s home. Often it connects to a den or kitchen, probably a hallway or stairs that lead to private bedrooms, utility rooms, or garage. On the other hand, a bedroom or bathroom are smaller rooms with pretty specific purposes and generally one way in and out of the room. Apply that same type of thinking to the layout of your dungeon and how the inhabitants might use the space.
And, as you’re laying out these spaces, break out of the rectangle mold. Grid paper enables a predilection for rectangular chambers. Start incorporating curved walls. Circular symmetry chambers are nice but consider adding a half-circle protrusion from a rectangular room to create an apse or alcove.
For something new, try creating rooms shaped like alphabet letters. L- and S-shaped chambers are common, but what about a P- or B-shaped room. A rectangular room with two apses on the side and two central columns can make for an exciting chamber design.
Include Architectural Features
Spend an hour checking out architectural design and looking up some terms. It really does help create more interesting locations for your Dungeons & Dragons games. A little knowledge of architecture will go a long way, whether designing better dungeons or laying out a castle or temple. Critical Hits has a good series about architecture for D&D.
Here are just a few of my favorites to include:
- Art Installations (Fountain, Gallery, Menagerie, Statue)
- Belvedere, Cupola, Rooftop Walk, and Turret
- Closets, Cupboards, and Built-ins
- Elevated Walkways
- Enclosed Atriums, Baileys, Grottos, and Pavilions
- Ladders, Ramps, and Stairs
- Partitions, Railings, and Screens
- Porch, Terrace, Veranda, and Widow’s Walk
- Vaulted Ceiling and Skylights
My Dungeon Chambers
Because my dungeon is a natural structure and mostly isn’t inhabited by intelligent creatures, there’s not much chamber design in most of the dungeon. I do have functional nesting areas for the monsters to give it the lived-in feeling. And the dwarven-designed areas have a spiral staircase, skylight, rooftop arbor, and a step-well. Most of the natural spaces are odd shapes and constantly broken up by stalactites and stalagmites.
Overall, I’d give the dungeon a B. I could have done more, though I’m not sure it would have been worth the prep time. Giving the party the sense that the dungeon is lived in and how the inhabitants utilize the space was well-conveyed.
Build Better Dungeon Doorways
Another way to improve your dungeons is to be varied in your dungeon’s doorways. In most dungeons, you have two types of doorways, locked doors, and unlocked doors. That’s doing a disservice to your dungeon and your players. Because it always boils down to the same series of actions. Check for traps, listen at the door, check to see if the door’s locked. If so, pick the lock. That’s multiple actions for every door in a dungeon, where there tend to be a lot of doorways.
Instead, look at different types of doorways to include in your dungeon. First, remove the door. Most natural structure dungeons utilize the open doorway idea. There is no barrier between most dungeon chambers and passages. Sound and light travel, so they can be difficult to sneak around, but also, it’s elementary to recognize where the monsters are. You can also include doorways covered by curtains or screens rather than hinged doors.
The most common dungeon door is wood or reinforced. However, they don’t have to be the only hinged door for your dungeon. Consider adding metal or stone doors, which can challenge groups that lack lock picking skills. Some doorways are see-through but still secure. Gates, portcullis, and turnstiles all provide ways for your players to see and interact with the monsters and spaces beyond the doorway without actually being able to access it.
Now, I want you to think about the locking mechanism of your doors. Most use a standard lock or maybe are barred on the other side. But, you could also include magically locked doors, password doors (a la Harry Potter), or the classic dungeon puzzle door.
Also, consider where your doorway is located. Remember that great dungeons include the z-axis in the layout. Adding a trapdoor to the floor or ceiling and requiring stairs, ramps, ladders, or some other means of accessing the door can also be a fun addition to your dungeon. Other strange examples could be fireman poles or dumbwaiters/counterweight lift.
And don’t forget about the size of your doorways. They should match the dungeon creators/inhabitants. Everything should be sized for small creatures in dungeons featuring monsters like kobolds, goblins and large for giants.
Not every door should be closed or locked either. Sometimes doors are open or slightly ajar. They can be stuck or broken (remember the dungeon’s condition). And they can be tricked or trapped against intruders. Creating a variety of door types and statuses will make exploring your dungeons more varied and fun.
My Dungeon Doorways
I will give myself a big fat F letter grade for doorways as a natural structure archetype dungeon is pretty much all open doorways. This choice was also significant because much of the dungeon features flying creatures with no hands to open or close doors.
Still, I should have included some specific variance in the doorways inside the dwarf-crafted section of the dungeon, and I did not. This party doesn’t have a rogue or lock pick user, so I don’t want them wasting time on locked doors. But that should be a hurdle my players need to address from their end, not me as a Dungeon Master. I just need to ensure there aren’t only things that a rogue could do in the dungeon that inadvertently would be a dead end for the party.
Building Better Dungeons Through Their Contents
So far, we’ve talked about how to build better dungeons for Dungeons & Dragons, or any Role-playing game, through more thoughtful planning and by being intentional and critical in the layout of your dungeon.
Now we turn our attention to what’s inside the dungeon and what changes we can make to build better dungeon experiences for our players. The first of which is by including secrets and missable content.
Dungeon Secrets & Missable Content
There is a lot of advice, thoughtful advice, for Dungeon Masters that we want to minimize the amount of prep and content we create that will not be seen at the table. But, to build better dungeons, we always want to include a few small secrets and parts of the dungeons that can be missed.
Adding secrets and missable content to a dungeon rewards players for noticing the tiny bits of detail we add to the dungeon and rewards your party for thorough exploration. This reward is the reverse side of the coin for the time limits we discussed earlier.
We want to provide our players with meaningful choices. Do they want to quickly accomplish their goal while keeping their resource expenditure to a minimum? But, by doing so, they may be missing out on some valuable treasure or maybe a critical piece of information concerning the adventure’s plot.
Secrets and missable content can take many forms: information, treasure, maybe an NPC, or a new adventure hook. Maybe the missable content is a secret entrance/exit to the dungeon that allows the party to leave the dungeon or circumvent some challenges quickly.
Just make sure you don’t make too many secrets and missable content for your dungeon. We still want most of the content we prep to be used at the table.
My Dungeon Secrets & Missable Content
Earlier I stated that the goal of the party’s recent adventure was just to find the head hunter nest. That means the entire dungeon is optional content. And inside the dungeon, they only need to experience half the content to face the BBEG and acquire all the dungeon’s loot.
But, they could very easily miss the additional exits to the dungeon, including a safe place for them to rest in the dungeon, plus finding out how the dungeon connects to the abandoned well nearby. All of these are important if the adventurers want to be sure to seal up the dungeon so the head hunters and mutants cannot find a way back to the surface where they can continue ravaging the countryside.
For secrets and missable content, I’d give my dungeon a B grade. I could have been more intentional with the secrets and missable content, but the dungeon does feature multiple instances.
Build Better Dungeons with Content Variety
This is the standard advice in every Dungeon Master resource. Role-playing games are at their best when the players are presented with all forms of different challenges that they need to overcome. I don’t think anything makes a D&D adventure more tedious, especially a dungeon delve, than relying on one type of challenge as a crutch.
Often the worst dungeons are simple series of rooms hosting combat encounters. Enter room, kill monsters, loot bodies, rinse and repeat. The 5-room dungeon is popular as a model for dungeon design because of its emphasis on varying the encounters within the dungeon.
Remember that different players engage with different aspects of Dungeons & Dragons. While Slayers and Power Gamers tend to love combat encounters, your other types of player archetypes enjoy other parts of the game more.
Player vs. Character Challenges
To build better dungeons it’s vital to ensure a percentage of your dungeon’s challenges are player challenges, not character challenges. Character challenges focus on skills, abilities, and combat. Basically, any challenge your players can get through by rolling dice.
Meanwhile, a player challenge tests the players directly, not their characters. They can’t be solved solely by combat or making a skill check. Examples of player challenges include puzzles, tricks, logic problems, riddles, exploration hazards/obstacles, and even gimmick/unkillable monsters.
Content Types to Include in Your Dungeon
Below are some of the most common challenges to include in your dungeon to help make it varied and exciting for players of all archetypes. For the best experience, make sure to include challenges from each pillar of the game (combat, exploration, social).
Some of the content types below can be put together. A killer combat might guard the cool loot, or something weird/fantastic could be a missable component.
- Brain Challenge (Logic Problems, Obstacles, Puzzles, etc.)
- Cool Loot
- Critical Decision
- Cupcake Combat (Morale Booster)
- Hidden Reward
- Killer Combat (Morale Breaker)
- Missable Component
- Skill/Ability Challenge
- Social Encounter
- Something Weird/Fantastic
- Tension Break
- Unfortunate Surprise
Like the cupcake combat and killer combat examples, an important part of creating variety in your dungeon’s challenges is using a range of difficulties. Your players will have a more organic dungeon experience if some challenges are hard, some are easy, and some are appropriate for their level.
In general, I like to shoot for about 50% of challenges at the appropriate difficulty and then 25% above and below, respectively. This usage provides sections of your dungeon where the party feels great for overcoming an easy challenge and where the morale dips when a challenge kicks in their teeth.
My Dungeon’s Content Variety
As stated, I love exploration. So, my dungeons have a lot of exploration challenges. The recent dungeon has obstacles and hazards, some skill challenges for climbing/sneaking. I had a few easy combats, plus one combat that sent them scrambling for a place to heal up. There was a safe place they could hole up, tension break. They came across a cavern covered in fleshy growth and mutants as something weird/fantastic.
We spoke previously about the missable content. They’ve had critical decisions about plumbing the dungeon and how to deal with the return of the head hunters. They needed to be clever and had a brain challenge for getting around a combat that would be a clear total party kill.
There was a potential for some social encounters, but none of the characters spoke Undercommon or had access to comprehend languages. The roper fight was missable content and an unfortunate surprise. They found a magic item that was cool loot and a hidden reward. The players had a half-hearted flight from the roper.
I’m going to give my dungeon an A letter grade for content variety. I technically could have been more deliberate in creating a social encounter, but the party was just off 2.5 sessions of nothing but roleplay. They still had plenty of RP with their dwarf pioneer guides and intraparty opportunities sprinkled throughout.
Build Better Dungeons by Creating Opportunities
In our quest to build better dungeons, we’ve planned, designed the layout, and considered the different types of content and challenges to stock the dungeon. What could be left?
If you follow the dungeon building advice up to this point, you’re going to build better dungeons; I have no doubt. But, to take it to the next level, to create great dungeons for our game, we need to be deliberate about creating opportunities for our players. We want our players to have cool moments and provide the opportunity for clever play, and we can enable it by being intentional in our dungeon building.
Let’s start with party touchstones and pain points.
Party Touchstones & Pain Points
The work we’ve done so far to build better dungeons has all been blanket advice that will work for any dungeon and any D&D group. In this section, we want to start customizing our dungeons, tailoring the experience specifically to our players and the party makeup.
We want to give each of the player characters one or more spotlight moments. We add challenges to our dungeon that can be specifically addressed by a character’s ancestry/heritage/race, background, or class touchstones. A challenge where the player can go, “I’ve got this.”
We want something for the ranger to track or weird masonry for the dwarf to interpret through stone cunning. Create intentional opportunities in your dungeon where the party can learn or do something only because of the specific characters the party decided to play.
Then, we want to flip the script on the principal to build better dungeons. Add a few challenges that other types of races and classes would make inconsequential. A swarm of low-level undead without the party having a cleric that can turn undead. Or a puzzle that requires lightning “damage” to power. These pain points make your players go, “damn, if only we had a wizard or a blue dragonborn to breathe lightning.”
These pain points help reinforce that there are strengths and weaknesses to every party’s composition and make your dungeons feel like any adventuring party could attempt them.
You need to avoid creating unintentional deadends in your dungeon using touchstones and pain points, for example, putting an Arcane Lock on an indestructible door. If the party doesn’t have a wizard with Knock or that player missed the session, you have to create an alternative way for the party to overcome the challenge or circumvent it. Otherwise, it becomes a dead end in your dungeon that grinds the party’s progress to a halt.
But, you can abrogate this issue and more general issues of deficiencies in party composition by giving your players access to some specialized magic items or ensuring hirelings are available. A sneak thief hireling won’t help you fight, but they could be indispensable for the traps and locks the party may run across in a dungeon.
My Dungeon’s Touchstones & Pain Points
The adventuring party’s leader is a ranger, so the adventures so far have leaned heavily into exploration in the wilderness, and the party really enjoys RP, so I have been placing that at the forefront.
The party is full of martial characters, so the dungeon emphasizes tight, long passageways and cover elements to ensure plenty of opportunities for hand-to-hand and ranged combat. One player is playing a Tabaxi, so they have a climb speed. My recent dungeon involves a lot of climbing, so they’ve had the opportunity to take the lead with exploration and do some acrobatic stunts.
On the pain point side, the party could not understand the arcane apparatus they came across and ended up releasing the roper that then attacked them. Nor were they able to gain insight into the strange fleshy chamber and mutants.
Also, while RP-driven players, they do not have a strong party face character, which has created a lot of fun, but often unfortunate social situations for the group.
The party was also reeling after their killer combat and did not have access to magical healing. They kicked themselves for not buying one of the expensive health potions in town before heading to the dungeon. Once the frontline martial character went down, they found themselves in dire straits.
Overall, I would give my dungeon a B grade for Touchstones & Pain Points. Were it a longer, more encompassing dungeon, I could do more with it, but each player character had a highlight moment, and they definitely felt the pain points of their party composition.
Advantageous Tactical Positions
Other intentional considerations we should look to include in our dungeons are tactical opportunities. Much as Dungeons & Dragons puts out lipservice that it’s a three-pillar game, the sheer fact is the majority of published material is combat-oriented content. So, we should look for opportunities to sprinkle in tactical opportunities for our players to enable their clever play.
Look for opportunities build better dungeons by adding defensible chokepoints, cover, advantageous elevations, light conditions, obscurement, dead-ends, and barriers. Each of these tactical pieces allows for your players or your monsters to take advantage of the situation.
But, tactical positioning is not only about combat. We also want to enable opportunities for our players to do cool things outside the realm of combat. Give them places where they can spy on monsters and learn information, opportunities to skirt around combat encounters entirely, or at least to find a more advantageous position to ambush the monsters.
Also, consider intentionally promoting ways for your party to steal treasure or set their own traps in the dungeon. What we want to avoid as better DMs is locking the players’ loot or plot tickets behind mandatory combat. Great Dungeon Masters and great dungeons set obstacles in front of players and ask them to decide how they will bypass the challenge.
My Dungeon’s Tactical Positions
Most of the monsters in my recent dungeon are chaotic hungry, and those that can speak don’t share a language with the party. So there are limited social RP opportunities with the monsters. But, they could find a safe place to rest within the dungeon, and they turned one encounter’s monsters against another and were able to take out the dregs.
They also created a solution through clever play to completely sidestep a large, almost definitely TPK with the expenditure of some adventuring gear. They were also able to backtrack and loop around to bypass another difficult combat encounter.
The dungeon features plenty of rubble, stalactites, and stalagmites, plus elevation changes for the party to make good use of their ranged attack capabilities while minimizing monsters capable of flight.
Letter Grade: B+
Include Tempting Treasure
Use treasure as the carrot for your players, the cheese in your mousetrap. Greed and the possibility of increased potency are powerful motivators. For example, you can place a treasure chest in an empty room, and almost every party will include one person who will decide to open the chest, even if it’s very clearly trapped.
But, you have to include tempting treasure. Occasionally the treasure chest can be empty or filled with copper coins. However, if you do it too often, your players will stop seeing it as worthwhile bait. This tactic offers an excellent way to build excitement for magic items or give them lore in your world.
My Dungeon’s Tempting Treasure
Because of the nature of the dungeon, I didn’t include much treasure. The monsters don’t care for treasure, and the ruined section is a functional public works created by tradespeople. There’s not much opulence to be had.
One tempting treasure was a rabbit fur-wrapped parcel across a chasm, tempting them to jump. The first attempt was deliciously disastrous, sending the ranger falling 30 feet into the darkness below. One rescue mission later, the party made it across the chasm to the treasure. The treasure was of little monetary value, but it did hold a clue to the dungeon. The Daylight spell page ripped from a spellbook. Upon further investigation, the party could learn that above them was an opening in the dungeon’s ceiling. And by clearing detritus and overgrowth, they could use sunlight to keep the monsters from exiting the system.
I also hid a magical weapon in the cocooned remains of the cave mouth. Of course, that led to a giant spider fight. The blade itself may be tied to the area’s history, but the players have not investigated that thread yet.
The last bit of tempting treasure was the glowing crystal in the dwarven apparatus holding the dungeon’s roper in stasis. The party removed the crystal and then had to fight a roper. The crystal itself is now an inert ioun stone. With some coin and magical assistance, they may be able to charge it up again.
Final Grade: C+, I would have included more if the dungeon allowed that to make sense.
Build Better Dungeons with Dynamic Monsters
Frequently it can feel like the player characters are the only things that are active in a dungeon. Like a video game, the dungeon denizens are just waiting around for the party to draw aggro.
You can build better dungeons that seem sophisticated by making your monsters active and dynamic. I like to plan my dungeons, assuming only 50% of the dungeon’s denizens are in residence at a time. Sometimes they leave, sometimes they return, sometimes they’re just moving through the dungeon passages. What the monsters aren’t is static.
Monsters should perceive and react to the party’s movement in a dungeon. What do they hear? Do they see the party’s torchlight? How long until they come across a dead body, bloodstain, or other sign of conflict? How do they investigate or raise the alarm?
Great enemy design is built on the Idle, Search, Combat flowchart. Gamemaker’s Toolkit has an excellent video breaking down detection in stealth video games which is useful.
Monsters should also flee or surrender when presented with overwhelming odds, not always fight to the death.
We also want to make use of the “Orcs Attack!” popularized by Matt Colville. I’ve run the gamut of feelings when it comes to wandering monsters, but now I’m a huge lover of them. Wandering monsters gives us the ability as DMs to crank up the tension dial. Taking too long to make a decision or solve a puzzle, monsters arrive. Players decide to loot all the bodies and spend 15 minutes searching a room for hidden secrets, monsters arrive.
It allows us to keep the pace up in the dungeon and never let the players get too comfortable.
But to build better dungeons, we also don’t want the monsters sitting around waiting for the adventuring party when they’re on the move. Here’s a quick list of things the monsters can be doing when the PCs run across them.
1d10 Monster Activities
- Crafting/Maintaining Gear
My Dungeon’s Dynamic Monsters
As touched on previously, the monsters are nocturnal, so most of them leave during the night to terrorize the countryside. So I set the stage at the beginning of the dungeon that the party is on a time crunch during nighttime hours to explore before most of the dungeon denizens return.
I had the monsters react to combat, and the party has strung together more than one combat into multi-encounter combats. One of the reasons I don’t ramp up the CR difficulty in my dungeons is because I don’t know when two or more combats will get pushed together, and we want to avoid a definite TPK.
Some monsters discovered the party and tracked after them at one point. The party witnessed one monster ripping another’s corpse apart, so they’re doing things in the dungeon. Another group was sleeping when the party came across the chamber.
I also informed the party when they heard footsteps, vocal sounds, or wings fluttering through nearby passages. The echo of the caverns making it challenging to determine the direction and distance of the sounds. Just informing my players that things are moving in the dungeon, somewhere.
Overall, I’d give my dungeon a B grade for dynamic monsters. I didn’t use any “Orcs Attack!” moments because the combats and failed exploration tests have kept them pretty beat up throughout the dungeon and the tension good without cranking up the dial.
Build Better Dungeons by Mixing Monsters
This point is pretty simple and likely one that even newer Dungeon Masters have noticed and employed. Fighting orcs and only orcs is boring. Not specifically orcs, but any dungeon that’s stocked with only one type of monster will become boring.
Creating a dungeon with one kind of monster was easy to do in D&D’s fourth edition. While 5e has ten types of orcs, 4e has 40 with the challenge rating maxing out at CR5 vs. CR12, respectively. Making an all-orc dungeon in 4e was a piece of cake. Each orc was different with different attacks, abilities, and tactics, while in 5e, many are carbon copies with different spell lists.
So, especially in 5e, you have to mix up your monsters to build better dungeons. We want to use the primary dungeon occupants from our factions, plus and pets or allies, and also include some unaffiliated or potential allies for the PCs. These unaffiliated monsters could even be a competing adventuring party.
If I were building an orc dungeon in 5e, I’d want to include orcs, but also some allies, mercenaries, and pets. I would look at including an ogre or hill giant. Maybe include a couple of bugbear mercenaries or human/half-orc barbarians. And add in some dogs, boar, or rothe as some pets/mounts.
By mixing up the dungeon denizens, you can ensure the combat doesn’t get stale and even provide more opportunities for social encounters.
My Dungeon’s Monsters
I went over the different types of monsters in my dungeon in the factions section above. Suffice it to say, there are no identical combats in the dungeon. As elaborated above, despite being out for a better part of a decade at the time of writing, 5e has a pretty thin monster roster compared to its preceding editions.
That means I, like a lot of DMs, have to reskin or invent new monsters to fill our dungeons. For example, the roper is severely de-leveled from the original to accommodate the party. In truth, none of the monsters in my dungeon are 100% played from pre-existing stat blocks. Each has been reskinned, re-tuned, or built from the ground up to fit the dungeon’s needs.
I’m going to give my dungeon an A letter grade. Primarily because Dungeons & Dragons 5e forces Dungeon Masters to create bespoke monsters out of necessity yet provides incredibly subpar guidance in their DM products on how a Dungeon Master can build a monster that walks the tightrope between being a pushover and a PC-killer. Essentially, I’m awarding myself an entire letter grade up-mark for experience at creating custom monsters.
Use Dungeon Dressing to Build Better Dungeons
Too often, dungeon dressing is either totally ignored or used as flavor text to distinguish one rectangular dungeon chamber from the next. This error entirely misses the opportunity for us as Dungeon Masters to build better dungeons. Use your dungeon dressing as an opportunity to show, not tell the context and history of your dungeons.
For example, if you include torture devices in your dungeon, you’re making a statement about either the dungeon’s creators or its current inhabitants. What information can you give players through water, fire, combat, burglary, or magical damage to a dungeon?
Are these the signs of an active trap in the area? Maybe it shows that previous adventurers or robbers have already looted this place. If there are vermin in the area, it means there must be something for them to eat. Maybe the players have been going through a dank and gross dungeon, then find an absolutely pristine hallway. What could that mean?
For veteran players, that’s a classic context clue for a nearby gelatinous cube.
What about an orderly room covered in dust, half-eaten moldy food on the table? Whatever happened here seems like a surprise, but without a conflict, and no bodies remain.
Where are the corpses, and what is their condition? Are there living prisoners or slaves the party can converse with and free?
You can always use rubble, fissures, and cracks to hint at a hazardous area that could be dangerous to traverse. Is there any graffiti in and around the dungeon? What can your players learn from it?
To build better dungeons, don’t miss an opportunity to world build or hint at what’s happening in your dungeons by using its dressing to show, not tell.
My Dungeon Dressing
The dwarven proto-cistern showed my players the area’s history and how long dwarves have been around as the location features not one but two abandoned cisterns built at different times. This history also plays into the area’s friction about a non-local human governing an area they know nothing about.
I used algae, mold, and watermarks to showcase the changing water levels in the dungeon. The damage to the dwarven proto-cistern was caused by time and disrepair, not by combat or other destructive force. Even the strange chamber covered in the fleshy substance let the party know something unnatural was living in the area, and its power was growing.
I will give my dungeon dressing a solid B letter grade. There would be more opportunities for dungeon dressing in an artificial archetype dungeon like a Vault or Complex. Still, I tried to use the dungeon itself to inform the players and their characters about the dungeon and the local area.
What Tips Do You Have to Build Better Dungeons?
This piece ended up much longer than I had initially anticipated. And I think that’s because the official Dungeon Master’s Guide just doesn’t provide guidance for Dungeon Master’s to build great dungeons. The DMG has SEVEN pages on building dungeons with some roll tables for planning it out. WoTC dedicated five times that amount to dragons in the Monster Manual alone.
Of course, it’s easy to complain about a Dungeon Master Guide that starts by telling DM’s how to create custom game worlds. But it is tiring to see D&D again and again inside 5e not provide DMs, especially new DMs, the practical tools to improve their game.
But, what tips do you have for building better dungeons that I missed? I tried to be extensive, but I know there are still a lot of gaps. Give me a follow and share your suggestions on Twitter, and if you’d like to help the blog out, you can share this post on social media, Reddit, or your favorite RPG forum.
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Well, that’s all for now. Go out and build better dungeons for your game!