Dungeons Part One: Theory and Design

July 16, 2014

As folks gear up for the new D&D and the resurgence of roguelike games, the flood of questions about how to design dungeons has arisen again.  Luckily, in the last 10 years there’s been some great discussion about dungeon design , which comes straight out of a larger population having better language to talk about game design in general, and videogame levels as a common experience.

What does a dungeon do?

Dungeons where you draw out maps, and prepare challenges, aren’t just scenery – they’re effectively level design in the same sense a videogame level design matters.  Dungeons structure your gameplay in three ways:

Information Scarcity

“What’s behind the door?”  “What’s down the dark hallway?”   “What’s that weird sound?”

Dungeons often rely upon hidden information – where treasure is hidden, where the worst threats are, and ways to get around them.  So you can find in many games a fair amount of play revolves around trying to suss out these things and spell lists and valued magic items reflect this.  This also means part of the value of a dungeon for multiple sessions of play is that one of the “rewards” the players pick up is familiarity with the dungeon itself – knowledge of how it is laid out allows them to make better strategic choices and use their resources better.  This sort of “dungeon mastery” goes hand in hand with system mastery of how the rules work for strategy in play and expertise of the players.

Constraining Resources

“What don’t the heroes just call for help?”  “I just go to a store and buy the right kind of tool” etc.

The dungeon separates the characters from a lot of potential resources, including allies or supplies.  At the very minimum, some things that wouldn’t be problems normally become problems (“Well, we could get across if we had our rowboat.  But we don’t.”).  More in-depth, you can start exploring the strategies of using limited resources to get by and improvise solutions.  You can also see this is where things like magic items or spells exist to solve these particular problems.

Strategic Play

The two issues above, along with very limited ways in which you can travel, sets up strategic options.  Choke points, areas good for fallback positions, flanking, etc. come out of these limited movement options.   “Knowing the Terrain” was a key point of warfare since forever, and you can even see things like MOBA style videogames using map design to encourage strategy in this same way, as well.

Different kinds of fun

To put it roughly, these three elements give players fun in three different categories – Exploration, Logistics, and Tactics, though they don’t map exactly one to one.  For example, traps rely on information scarcity, but usually the part players have fun with traps is figuring out how to outwit them, bypass the trap, or use it to their advantage – Logistics.

These three aren’t entirely incompatible, but depending on the group of players, they may want very different kinds of ratios – and those desires for different ratios might BE incompatible.  Some people love exploring and drawing maps and making inferences (“Oh, wait, see how these two hallways line up?  I bet there’s a secret door here.”), while other people are bored out of their minds.  Some people love figuring out how to efficiently use their torches and supplies and not end up stranded – other folks look on in horror at, what is to them, tedium.  Others like a good old fashioned fight – and others rather play a heist game where you avoid as many fights as possible.

In other words, even if everyone wants a “dungeon crawl” and everyone wants a Gamist experience to “beat the dungeon” what they may want can be very, very different.  I’ll go into more on this in Part Two.

Layout and Flow

Well, I’m just going to link to a pretty great analysis of some iconic D&D dungeons as flowcharts to read.  You’ll notice that a key value the author talks about is giving players choices and multiple paths in a dungeon, along with circular loops at points.  This is actually something noted as a positive in some of the older MMO dungeon designs as well.  Currently, most of the good theory on game design about the kind of layout and flow that applies most to dungeoncrawls can be found in “Metroidvania” style games.

Branching Options

All the above links talk about the value of branching options of which way to go.  Initially, the players will only have what scarce information there is to decide which way to go – it might be sounds, the idea that going up or down is a better choice, a faint breeze and scent, etc.  It’s useful to provide information of SOME kind at branching directions, otherwise for the players it’s completely a meaningless choice the first time through.   After they’ve seen what’s further ahead, the branch becomes a tactical/navigational choice – especially if they’re being chased or otherwise need to hurry somewhere.


Gating/Blocking is a key part of Metroidvania design, though it shows up in older tabletop dungeons too – it’s where there is a door, gateway, or obstacle that cannot be passed without some kind of special action or tool.  It might be the magical door that has a riddle or the area you can’t reach without a rope.   Gating/Blocking gives players a reason to come back to an area and sits as a question in the back of their minds as they play.  The obstacle should be for a branching path, and not block play altogether.

Although this is generally a great thing to throw in any dungeon design, it’s important to also remember in many games, players will find ways past some of these gates.  Maybe a character is strong enough to simply break one down, or uses some kind of magic to get past it.   This is why dungeons become harder to design as characters get more powerful and magical – characters who can teleport, dig, or phase through solid matter aren’t really constrained…


Previews are ways of showing players things they can’t get to… just yet.  Most of the time this is good things – like a treasure chest that is on the other side of a chasm, but it can also be dangerous things, like a monster on the other side of a gate…   Previews are good because they give the players incentive to push ahead, forewarning of danger, and basically help the area feel whole and connected.   If you are using circular or looped level design, this also helps connect areas – so when the players get around to the other side of the chasm, they can point back: “OH, this is the other side, we came in over there!”.

Videogames do this all the time, though tabletop dungeoncrawls usually don’t do it enough.


What makes a shortcut different than just a normal branching option?  It either has to be secret or something you earn.  “Earn” may include going all the way to the end of a path to find a secret door back to where you started… “earn” could also mean something like having to find a rope to lower to an area you’ve been before.  Shortcuts can either give you a quick way back, or a way around a dangerous hazard or threat.

Just like branching paths, shortcuts become tactical choices – players know where it leads and it gives them an extra option to get around.

One Way Paths

One way paths (doors, slides, pitfalls, bridges that crumble, teleporters, etc.) do one of two things.  Either it forces the players into a new area and the danger of having to find their way back through unexplored territory, OR, it forces them back to somewhere they’ve been before, forcing them to go through it all again.

The former is more scary, as the players don’t know what they’re dealing with or how far they may need to go before they can get to safety.  The latter usually makes folks angry, as it pushes them back to the beginning and any lasting hazards will need to be avoided or handled once more.

One way paths are tricky to use in tabletop games.  Being pushed forward, it increase lethality for the characters… and unlike a videogame, you can’t simply go back to a save point.  Being pushed back to previous areas, usually just wastes time, as most hazards the players dealt with are not going to be regenerated or replaced in that short of a notice.  If your game relies on specific party balance, one-way paths, more than anything else, are great at splitting up parties… which usually throws play out of wack for most dungeon crawlers.

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