As I was working on the Iron Mine dungeon for my own campaign, and reading various things online (including the AngryDMs articles on his MegaDungeon) I decided I wanted to write something about my high level dungeon design approach, and some pet peeves.
Obviously, every dungeon should have a story, and a history, which explains why it was built, what its function was and what has happened with it since it was built. Knowing these things will help you add the small details that makes the dungeon come alive.
To me, there are two extremes of dungeon design – the realistic and the fantastic – and a
whole lot of variations in between. Another way to look at them are complete dungeons versus ‘just the cool bits’ dungeons. An example of a complete dungeon would be Temple of Elemental Evil, where every little corridor is described and the Death Star, where we just see a couple of important areas, would be a ‘cool bits’ dungeon.
Gary Gygax leaned towards the realistic and complete dungeon. His gaming and inspiration starting point was actual medieval castles, and therefore many of the early published dungeons look somewhat like something you could find in real life – an example would be the Moathouse in The Village of Hommlet module.
The biggest problem, in my view, with many of the old school designs is that many of the dungeons are actually far smaller than the “dungeons” – in the broad sense – that you can find in real life, and Gary’s sources of inspiration are focused on medieval Europe, which limits the imagination. However, humans have built vast fortresses, palaces and constructions that dwarf what the early designers came up with for D&D. And until the Underdark became a thing, the natural caves in the real world were far more extensive than e.g. Keep on the Borderlands. Real world strongholds are also often very complex buildings with many complicated passageways and interconnecting rooms.
Furthermore, it is obviously not realistic to have 5 goblins living 20 yards and two doors away from a ferocious owl bear. Would you be living in an apartment if there was a wild bear living a couple of apartments away… even if you had a spear?
The influence of the real world architecture has also prevented many designers from actually thinking about how things would look in a high magic fantasy world. A castle is designed to take as many lives from the enemy as possible, while protecting the people inside from the attackers as much as possible for as long as possible. Therefore, you typically only have one or two access points from the ground level and towers from where you can better attack the enemy. But if you are a wizard who wishes to create a flying citadel using a castle seems to be a terrible design. Why would you want towers and battlements on your Citadel, when you might as well carve out a big rock with whatever you need. It would be much safer from dragons and armies of knights on griffons.
In my current campaign I’ve tried to think more about this for current and future dungeons.
The Published Designer’s Constraint: paper
The issue for designers who have to publish their stuff is that they are limited by the medium: for example, the paper size and the number of pages you can publish limits the designer. That seems to be one of the reasons why Gary G. cram so much stuff into each level of the Temple of Elemental Evil. Obviously it is also fun that every time you open a door to a room there is something interesting.
The designer also has to be able to communicate his vision with a map and text, which can be quite difficult. At home, you don’t need to explain to other people in text.
Your GM notes only needs to be understood by you. That’s a big advantage.
The realistic dungeon just doesn’t seem Fantasy-like to me, when you play a high fantasy game like D&D at least. With massive magocracies and enslaved giants, why would you build those tiny structures. As a lich, with endless amount of time, I would build something more imposing than Caerphilly castle in Wales – even though it is very grand in real life.
In your home game, if you want to make a big fantastic dungeon in a ruined city, you can make sections of the dungeon and cut out the boring parts. If your dungeon has a massive slave pit, make one big encounter against the slave masters and their pets, figure out how it connects with the rest of the dungeon, and then simply narrate the rest of the trip there.
The Iron Mine
For the Iron Mine in my campaign I used the approach I’ve described. The site has a historical background and fits into the world, and it has a twist, that I can’t reveal here. But it relates to a couple of the greater narratives in my world. For example, last session they found the foreman, who had locked himself up in a room and killed himself. The question is why?
The mine has been worked by the elves for perhaps centuries, so it wouldn’t make sense to have one page of graph paper with some 10×10 corridors and a few rooms. Therefore, I made several sections of the mine, connected with tunnels that were 30×30 feet, and hundreds of feet long, and explained to the players that there were numerous small side corridors, shafts and tunnels, which their characters would be looking into and checking out superficially along the way as part of the story, but that we would only go into full dungeoneering mode, when they arrive at significant parts of the dungeon.
Each section I made is sort of a mini-dungeon by itself, with typically 3-5 separate locations/rooms, and the sections function and history is incorporated into the overall backstory of the dungeon. And each section has its own map. The map connecting the sections is basically a flow-chart.
Some of the advantages with the approach are:
- The mine seems like a more grand, fantastic and scary place, in my view.
- The dungeon ecology becomes more realistic. The eco system comes more alive with more realistic space.
- There is room for wandering monsters, as the players will never explore it all, and things can move around them, without the party noticing.
- Time becomes more realistic. The characters have to move carefully hundreds of yards between points of interest, with resulting consequences for spells, light sources and resting.
- Each section is easy to grasp by the players when they get there and I can explain and draw it quite easily.
When my players get deeper into the Iron Mine, I can write more about how I work with stories in my dungeons.
This is what I see as at the core of my design philosophy. Let me know if I’m off the rails, or what else should inspire me.