Mastering as Game Master: Conceptual Dungeons Episode.030

You find yourself following a series of twisting corridors barely illuminated by your dying torchlight.  It’s been nearly two hours now of walking on the cold, stone floor, and you begin to feel the stiffness in your knees.  Most of the doors have been locked and barred from the inside.  With no means of entering them, you have been forced to press on.  However, you have heard whimpering behind each one, and the constantly increasing number of barred doors has made you start to wonder about things.  What could be behind them?  Why would denizens of a dungeon keep themselves secured inside so many rooms?  And what is causing them to whimper?  The questions are immediately erased from your mind as your last torch begins to flicker its final light, and the sound of hundreds of high pitch clicking noises enter your ears.  There is movement up ahead, but the light is faded and gone, leaving you in the darkness with the source of the sound.  You’ll soon find out what is making the noise, but then it will be over.

There tends to be a fairly decent separation between RPers:  those who began playing RPGs in the 70s and 80s and those who began playing in the 90s and 2000s.  I have met enough gamers in the last 20 years to convince me that this holds true.  The style of gameplay, the focus of the adventures (especially published modules), and the setup of each encounter has changed drastically.  Dungeons have grown smaller with notable occurrences much closer together than before.  What was once a long, winding series of tunnels that eventually led to a room are now more compact, almost as if they were written for short attention span players.

Encounters are the most significant change.  It once was expected in a description to have a block of text to read to the players, describing the situation followed by some notes for the DM to be aware of.  Although some of that remains, the larger publishers out there who produce miniatures focus the fights more on strategy and utilizing their full-graphic battle maps and pre-painted miniatures.  Of course, it’s a smart move financially as you want to promote and encourage consumers to purchase your entire product line.  These features can enhance or clarify situations that otherwise might become cloudy.


More modern RPGs have a more tactical approach to combat.  There are more rules for combat these days that try to answer every situation and provide all forms of maneuvers.  It can add more visual elements to the table and more flavor to the excitement as the fighter no longer simply swings his sword but bull rushes against the opponent, sending him over the cliff’s edge.

Traditionally, the earlier you go back in history of RPGs, the more the game is focused on developing the scene in your mind.  Although it still holds true to today that the game’s core concept still resides in the mind for the most part, there are now elements that take away that need for imagination such as the use of figures on the table.  Twenty plus years ago, the game relied entirely on great storytelling to make sure everyone had as close to the same understanding of what is going on as the other.  Naturally there were times reiterating the situation was necessary in order to more clarify and paint the mental picture better, but for the most part, everyone tended to enjoy their own version.

We generally prefer to play the games we were first exposed to.  Playing for years in 1st edition AD&D, one might be less inclined to playing Pathfinder for very long.  There is a more comforting feel of a game that we are familiar with.

I prefer dungeons that are long, drawn out.  I keep track of things that other DMs may not such as torch and lantern life.  However, more traditional dungeons sometimes take a different approach in order to keep the pace going as the corridors can stretch for considerable length and have numerous turns.  A single level filling an entire page of notebook paper is not out of the question.  If you have stuck to more modern dungeons and are interested in trying to bring back a more traditional style, there are a few things to keep in mind.


Don’t describe things in 10 foot intervals.  Nothing can be more boring and dragging than to say, “You continue down the corridor, traveling 20 feet.  Up ahead the corridor continues another 40 before turning to the right.  You continue down 40 more feet.  The hall turns to the right 90 degrees.  Up ahead the corridor continues before making a left.”  This proves nothing except point out the corridor continues on for a while.  There is no need to go into that much detail when talking about a dungeon unless something is important such as an encounter.  In long years past, the thief was the leader in a dungeon, checking for traps every 10 feet to assure the rest of the party doesn’t succumb to a fatality.  It is a terrible idea to have the thief check every 10 feet.  Broaden the scope of checks and allow for an entire corridor to be checked.  It goes with rooms as well.  Even if the room is tremendously large, the roll should be about finding traps and not based on the size of the room.  Instead factor the time it takes to search the entire room and calculate any chance for random monsters if applicable.  Keep the game moving.

Structure your dungeon with logic.  This is a big change in the evolution of dungeons over the years.  One could almost deduce that the architects of dungeons 20-30 years ago were all completely mad, creating illogically laid out dungeons that made zero sense.  The monsters roaming around would soon die from lack of food and water unless the place had a steady stream of adventurers, to which would mean that the odds are against the monsters surviving every party.  Every dungeon does not have to be filled with just monsters.  Roaming creatures that are harmless but are meant to be food for predators can not only make your dungeon more believable but give more realism to the experience.  I often will throw the old “cow’s eyes” trick on players where their lantern sees 2 glowing eyes in the darkness outside their lantern’s light.  Nine times out of ten they fire an arrow at it because they are spooked.  Then they discover it was just a cow.  There can be kennels, stables, even special grazing dens for herd animals.  Yes, herd animals can be in dungeons.  Rooms can be large enough for grazing, and as long as there is some form of light source somewhere, life, uh, finds a way.  Natural lighting can come from a hole in the ceiling high above like a cave, or there can be magical means from an old permanent spell.  Perhaps the vegetation itself casts light that aids in other vegetation to grow.  Every living creature must sleep at some point to regain strength.  Therefore they all must have places of rest.  The more intelligent the creature, the better the accommodations will be as they appreciate comfort more.  Be creative in sleeping quarters for monsters that are not bipeds.  Don’t just make them sleep on a pile of hay.  Maybe they sleep on a pile of warm coals that are heated by lava far below but is just far enough to be toasty and bearable.  Some could sleep in a hammock that was abandoned years ago by someone.  Wood crates that are opened at one end could be a nice nook for a creature to cozy up in.  Flying creatures might have rings suspended from the ceiling to roost on.


Dungeons don’t always have to have a plot to exist.  There usually is a reason for every dungeon’s existence, but there doesn’t have to be an actual plot.  There might be small situations such as a prisoner wishing to escape but has nothing to do with the overall scope of the dungeon.  More traditionally, dungeons are built to protect something or someone or just torment adventurers.  They are fortresses in a sense because they are there as an obstacle.  Players may simply stumble upon a half-hidden door in the side of a mountain or even a small sink hole no bigger than 3 feet in diameter in the middle of a forest clearing that leads to a colossal dungeon.  They can be more of a grab n dash where the purpose is nothing more than to clear out the monsters and loot the treasure.  Plot can exist, yes, but create the dungeon to the plot itself if doing so.  For example, if the players must discover why archaeologists have been disappearing from a cleared out dungeon, build plenty of rooms that are half-excavated with proper tools lying about.  Provide fluff such as journals that discuss the history of the structure they are working on.  It can slowly unfold the plot of what is causing the disappearances as they learn more about the place.  If the plot involves a beholder who is coordinating assassinations on a nearby town in order to wipe out a family line prophesized to slay it in the future, provide rooms that demonstrate the various eye stalk powers and spells as a hint of what is going on but offer confusion as to the source.

Keep things moving.  Unless there is a door, trap, monster, or split in the corridor, move things along.  Describe it as a whole.  For example, “The corridor spans about 100 feet before making a series of turns, left and right, with seemingly no rhyme or reason behind it.  Finally your walk ends at the beginning of a stretch of doors on either side of the corridor, all made of wood and lined with old iron.”  Even that was too long winded.  It is important to give them the mental picture that the dungeon twists and is maze-like (if it is), but the overall movement goes from situation to situation.

Try to keep your dungeon at least 60/40 with interesting rooms.  Empty rooms can be rather boring, but sometimes they need to be to keep the meaningful rooms more meaningful.  These empty rooms are not truly empty; they are there for the logical side of the dungeon’s structure such as sleeping chambers, eating quarters, storage rooms, or even a latrine.  However, don’t overdue one or the other or the value will be lost.  I generally  like to provide 1 meaningful room for every 2 empty rooms.  I also won’t hesitate to make one of those empty rooms have something meaningful hidden within such as a secret door.  Players will begin wondering if they should pass the room up or investigate further.


Utilize unique rooms wisely.  It is tempting to throw all of your aces into each room the players come across.  Especially when the creative juices are flowing, we have a book full of great ideas to entice the players.  However, it is important not to saturate the dungeon too much or else the flair will be lost.  Unless the dungeon is in the style of “Through the Looking Glass,” which players are expecting everything to be off-the-wall unique, use them sparingly.  Don’t worry about thinking outside the box in your more traditional dungeon either.  It’s okay for one room to be a reverse gravity arena where everyone is on the ceiling or a living tropical jungle that spans several miles in every direction.  Make part of the dungeon multidimensional.  Just make sure there is a proper balance, that there is some constructive thought behind your placement and not just random chaotic crap.

Give your players enough room.  This actually doesn’t matter if you are using battle maps with miniatures and modern rules or exclusively classic rules with just the imagination.  There is still the need for movement.  Sure it is fun to wedge your party into a narrow area and pit them up against a challenge that requires mobility, but in the end, it becomes cumbersome to manage.  At first there will be the sense of dread as the players realize their traditional method of fighters dancing around in melee while the rest move for cover in the back won’t work this time.  As soon as that realization wears off, it still has to be dealt with.  It’s very uninteresting (not to mention too fair) if one player is forced to take the entire blunt force of the opposing enemy simply because the design of the place is inadequate.  It is okay to put them in tight situations, but give them opportunity to have some freedom.  Don’t constraint them to the point they might as well be fighting out of cages.  The game is about allowing players to do whatever their characters can do not tunneling them down a glorious vision the GM dreamt up.  If you are using battle maps, blow the entire place up bigger than you think.  A 3×3 room may be a nice 15 foot wide space, but when the miniatures take up 1/3 of the width, it becomes tight very quickly with 3 or 4 in there.  Let the players and monsters dance a bit.


Don’t let players map your dungeon out.  This takes forever.  I’ve mentioned this in an earlier blog months ago that falls into pace.  No one in their right mind is going to bring pieces of paper, quills, and ink with them on a dungeon excursion to document every turn.  It’s highly cumbersome to begin with.  There are no cartridge pens in a fantasy setting.  Future settings would just use some kind of a GPS system to coordinate it all out.  Using quill and a bottle of ink requires a table.  It’s not something you can stop and press the paper against a nearby wall and dabble the quill in ink then proceed to draw it.  Not to mention that graph paper didn’t exist either.  Adventurers are there to explore.  If the players get lost, have the one with the highest wisdom deduce backtracking.  Recommend the players use landmarks or even simple notations such as an unusually large crack in the wall near a juncture in case they do have to retrace their footsteps a bit.

These are just suggestions for dungeons, and the suggestions could keep on going such as making dungeons more narrow and vertically oriented with the risk of falling through the floors.  Perhaps keep the initial dungeon relatively small and simple with dimension doors that take players all over the world to explore part of a ruin or a few rooms of a sunken temple before finding an important clue and returning to enter another dimension door.   The point is in this entire article is that we need not commit ourselves to just one look or line of RPG.  Our comfort zone may be in one edition or another, but opportunity abounds as long as we keep an open, positive, and willing mind to keep exploring.  Traditions and modern concepts need not be kept in separate cages.  Dig out the books you’re not used to using to find new inspirations.  Give yourself a chance to look into classics that you didn’t think was possible or interesting before simply because it didn’t feel right.  Nostalgia might always be nagging at you to go back home, but don’t let yourself miss the chance of discovering what’s over the next hill.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.



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