Archive for July, 2014


Dungeons Part Five: Information Management

July 20, 2014

You don’t just design the dungeon for the players to play it, you also have to design it so you can RUN it in play.   This post is just about the practical tricks to managing your information.

What to Track?

Do Not Bury Your Information

One of the worst ways to organize your dungeon info is to have several blocks of text with important stuff buried in it.  You want information broken out, into separate sections so it is easy to navigate.  You can find adventure modules where a room has nearly a half page of description but buries stuff like stats and mechanical bits right in with the (longwinded) room description.

Do Not Scatter Your Information

The other terrible thing for handling information is to bury a chunk of information into it’s own section, elsewhere.  For example, if you have a magical effect that works on several rooms, you could put a single section describing this effect near the beginning or the end, but it’s probably better to have a shorthand of that description included WITH each of those rooms.  It’s just easier to not have to flip back and forth in your notes, or skip around.  Your notes are supposed to make it easy to run a game, so put everything you need, every place you need it.

Exploration, Logistics, Tactics

Depending on what your group wants, determines what you should bother recording.

Groups who have no interest in exploration don’t actually need a map, even.  You can just have a list of relevant locations and an approximation of how long it takes to get there.  Groups who care about logistics probably want to know things like sources of water, where to find tools and supplies, or things that can be used as such.  Groups who want tactics  might not care about an overall dungeon map, but want good maps for the fight areas…  So keep this in mind, as I describe stuff to track, you pick and choose what makes sense based on your groups’ needs, rather than do everything just to do it.


What are the odds of events in one room affecting another? Are monsters going to react to hearing sounds of fighting?  Or are they undead or constructs bound to an area?  Or is it too far too hear?   If monsters run from one area to another, will other monsters react in turn?  If a guard doesn’t show up at another station in a certain amount of time, when do they send out patrols to check on them or barricade themselves in assuming an attack is imminent?

If your rooms and it’s inhabitants might have chain reactions upon each other, you may want to track it (see Sounds, below).


If you’re playing a one shot or short run through a dungeon, you probably don’t need to worry too much about notes and obsessing on what effects the players have upon the area.  If the dungeon is a mega dungeon where the players will be playing for many game sessions, or a years-long campaign, you may want to track how things get changed and what the consequences are, in detail.

If your game is going to be long lasting, you may want to track Persistence (see Breakables and Notes, below).

Room Info

I use the word “room” but this can be any kind of area in your dungeon – a hall, stairs, a giant cave with an underground lake, etc.  A “room” is basically an area you need to have some kind of information to deal with about it.


Give each room a title.  “The Creepy Statue Room”, “The Sliding Hall Trap”, etc. work better than just “Room 42”.   To be sure, you can still use numbers as well, but the title will help you remember things so you don’t have to re-read your notes as often.


Features is the most important thing!  What are the exits? What hazards, threats, challenges or rewards does this room hold, if any?  If it doesn’t hold anything, you should ask if it needs to be here, and even if you do need the room, do not spend too much time giving it description.  You can look at this as being the “reason” the room exists at all from a game design standpoint, and determines if the room has engagement density.  This is a good place to write down critical mechanical bits, preferably with a bullet point breakout for ease of reference.

This is how I measure how “big” a dungeon is, not how many rooms, but how many rooms have something interesting to engage with.


Description is what the PCs see upon first sight.  It can either be a few sentences you can read out loud, or it can be short notes that mean something to you (“Storage room, looks like creepy shop from Gremlins movie”) that allow you describe or improvise the rest.  Notice that this is not going to include things that are hidden, require investigation/examination, stats, etc.

Unless I’m using a mapless dungeon (just a list of important areas), I don’t bother writing the basic room dimensions – that’s what the map is there for.  If there’s some kind of weird thing that wouldn’t display well on the map (an incline, the ceiling sloping in a weird way, etc)., then I would include it here, although if it’s enough to impact gameplay in an obvious way, then it goes to Features instead.


Traps, hidden doors, hidden treasure, etc.  These are the things which aren’t obvious without close and careful inspection.  If someone starts searching or using funky detection magic, you have it in the Secrets section to make it quick and easy to find.  It’s also worth noting if some special action has to be taken to find these things or what the difficulty numbers are if it involves some kind of skill roll.


Does the room have objects, decorations, markings or evidence of anything that tells something about the setting or the world around you?  Does the room communicate information?    This can be anything from giant claw marks that serve as forewarning there’s a large monster about, to tapestries that show you this was once the stronghold of the Elven King of the East.   Information is broken out separately because it nearly always requires a little bit of time to inspect and think about it, which may not be relevant if players are just running through.

If you already know your players and what their characters can do, you can specialize information to be specifically relevant to certain characters.  Give different characters extra information based on what they would know.


How well does sound carry between rooms?  Is there any nearby rooms where sound carries well?  Useful to check if other creatures can hear you, or if you can hear things going down with other creatures.  This is worth noting if there usually are creatures in these other areas, and especially important in Fortress, Mastermind, and Faction style Threat Structure dungeons.

“Conversations can be heard in the hall (2), shouting reaches the Garden (5) and the Stair Entry (23).”


A list of things that break easy – fragile objects, furniture, etc.  You don’t need a detailed laundry list, shorthand is fine (“alchemy lab on the table, bookshelves of ancient books”).  This is important to consider when players are tossing fireballs and lightning around the room or a minotaur is running around swinging wildly.  Just cross off the things as they get ruined…  “Table, Paintings, Urn of Hot Coals, Chairs, Shelves of Books”

Also note that a lot of breakables are also “takeables” – things players might have their characters pick up, or move to somewhere else… Also useful to cross off.

Note Space

If you plan on having this be a longer dungeon run where enough time will pass for significant adaptation within the dungeon, give yourself space to write notes on each room.  This becomes useful when you need to remember that one area is full of rotting carcasses stinking up the area and drawing scavenger monsters or another place has been barricaded, etc.


The Flooded Chamber


  • The room is flooded up to 3 feet.  It counts as rough terrain.  Shorter characters may need to swim.
  • The water is murky, anything in the water has Concealment to things above/out of the water.
  • Fighting things in the water has Disadvantage unless the weapons are daggers, short swords, or spears.
  • There’s a crocodile that will ambush the party, getting the first round by surprise.


This part of the abandoned mine is flooded with 3 feet of water, and you can see water trickling down the walls.  The east and west tunnels are also partially flooded, but you can see the very top of a downward sloping Northern tunnel which is completely flooded.   A strong breeze comes from the northern doorway.  The water is murky and fetid, and a rusted wheelbarrow is floating nearby.


Mining/Dwarf characters only: This flooding must be relatively recent, only within the last couple of years as the wood supports haven’t rotted out yet.  Since you can see water trickling down from above, you wonder if a small pond has formed above or a stream has been diverted somehow…

Sounds: N/A (Nothing is nearby to react to sounds that happen here.)

Secrets: N/A (There’s nothing really hidden here, it’s a flooded tunnel)

Breakables: N/A (there’s the rusty wheelbarrow… but yeah, nothing really)

NOTES: Normally I’d leave out anything with “N/A”, but I’m including it here for you to see the sort of layout for a room I might play with.  This is mostly a mild terrain hazard with an ambush type creature, not much else.  As you can see, the Features lists a few critical things to pay attention to.

If I had a lot flooded areas, I would consider either putting the relevant bits at the beginning of each room description under Features OR I’d have it printed on each page, so I don’t have to flip around looking for anything..  Alternatively, you could use a single index card for every flooded area and just keep it available.

Information Wrangling


There’s a ton of map options these days – drawing it out on graph paper, using a dry-erase mat, pre-printed dungeon tiles/maps, and dungeon mapping software.  Regardless of what you’re using, I suggest trying to put notes directly on your maps, if you can.  The less you have to flip between your map and your descriptions of areas and rooms, the better it is for you.

The trick, of course, is finding which bits are most relevant and can fit within your chosen medium.

Divvy up by Sections

While you could theoretically simply list 100 rooms in order, it’s easier to navigate these things if you actually break them up into sections.  Those different sections might be stored as parts of a binder with dividers between them, or it might be different files in your computer.   This makes it easier to navigate overall rather than having to shuffle through the whole dungeon.  This also works well if you’re using some of the design ideas from “Metroidvania” style videogames – where you already end up dealing with larger sections connected by a few possible paths.

Using Index Cards

If you don’t have to have too much info to list, an index card system can work great.  I like to write the room number in the top right corner, with a big, black marker.  Put all your index cards in a holder, or box, in order.  Then, as you go through the dungeon, you can check your map, pull out the card the players are exploring plus the connected ones as well.  If you have monsters, give them their own cards and paperclip them to the room they’re in – and if they move rooms, you just move the clip accordingly.

The drawback is that you don’t have a ton of space to record information and if you’re not organized, you can turn it into a complete mess.  Also, unless you go out of your way with cardstock and printing and cutting, you’ll be putting these together by hand, which might be a ton of extra work.

Using Software

There’s a ton of software out there these days, though I have to admit I can’t give a lot of info for you there – I’m mostly into hand drawing maps and scrawling out the notes by hand.  I can imagine a lot of value being in a map tool or presentation software where you simply hyperlink the image of the map and the individual rooms to take you straight to a file or description of that room.

My basic experience with gaming and software is that screen space is a premium and you always underestimate how long it will take between clicking, opening up files, scrolling to the right location in the file, and then dragging windows around to have everything you need visible at the same time.  I usually will use a combination of a file open on a screen and written/printed notes as you can spread out the notes in front of you for quick reference.

The other concern is if you need to be online to access your notes and what happens if you lose connectivity, and also if you have players sending you data, if you have to reformat it or re-enter it to work with whatever other system you have going on.  These all seem like mild hurdles, but these just add up to more work you have to do that isn’t directly focused on playing.

Next: Monsters, Hazards, and Stunting

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Dungeons Part Four: Threat Structure

July 19, 2014

So, important confession time: the order of these posts is about “takeaway value” and modularity for you folks reading, rather than the order in which I use these ideas to make a dungeon.   Pretty much everyone can see the value in better design flow from playing stuff like Metroidvania games, and everyone has probably played a dungeon crawl that worked in a way very different than what they wanted in terms of Exploration/Logistics/Tactics, so those ideas are easy to pick up and plug into your own dungeon design.   The specifics of running a dungeon only make sense in light of those two ideas, and although this is the fourth article, it’s actually the first conceptual step I take before I draw any map or look up any monsters:

Threat Structure

Threat Structure is an idea of how the dungeon overall should be populated, set up, and react to the player characters.  It’s a very different experience between poking around and fighting off bits of wildlife in a tunnel system vs. wandering through a giant clockwork dimension created by a mad wizard who can reshape it a will.    Not just in colorful description, but also the way the monsters react – do they run?  Do they set up traps? Do they cooperate and mob you?  This is the game design part that’s worth considering.


Many dungeons are “critter” dungeons – they’re full of random monsters that either live in a natural habitat zone or have moved into some place that has been abandoned.  Critter dungeons might have a few small groups of intelligent creatures, but mostly the dungeon is things with animal-level intelligence.  You can get a good variety of threats in this kind of dungeon.

Critter threats are often predators or things fighting back out of fear.  You get stuff like alpha predators, pack hunters, ambush predators, poisonous things, and swarms.    Monsters don’t cooperate, so it’s easy to keep the encounters from snowballing into mob rushes.  A lot of the creatures can be driven off, which makes some fights easier, but it can also mean the players might have to deal with a monster that keeps coming back to try and pick them off.


A Lair is a little different than a critter dungeon, in that there’s one dominant monster or a species.  There may be a lot of other types who live on the side or are otherwise not interacting with the main creature(s), but most of that ecology is shaped by that central focus.  This might be a theme like if you have a poisonous dragon, that most of the creatures who live here have become poisonous as well – by absorbing the miasma it gives off…

Lair threats are an alpha predator or predators that shape the whole ecosystem.  Other monsters avoid these things.  These monsters are experts in most of the terrain, have hunt zones they know very well, and will violently protect their territory.  If the animals have good senses like smell or hearing, the party’s location might be easily tracked at all times, leading to some very scary games of cat-and-mouse.


A Mastermind dungeon involves an intelligent being of great power that actively sets up the dungeon as a place of defense.  They may or may not fix everything up, but they’re definitely using and manipulating the monsters within for their own safety and exploitative needs.  This might include breeding or magical enhancement to improve them.

Thematically, a mastermind dungeon might be known and feared (“A Vampire lives in those catacombs!”) or it might be something the players only discover after they’re in the dungeon.  It can be quite horrifying to realize what you thought was random critter ecology was actually engineered by someone on purpose.

Because there is a Mastermind running the dungeon, you can be assured they will take action as soon as they feel there’s a problem, to either get rid of the intruders, lead them off the right track, or otherwise improve their defenses.  Masterminds tend to make nasty traps, magic, or use of environment with their monsters, and you may have a few powerful lieutenant monsters that work to patrol the dungeon and modify the defenses as intruders attack.


A Fortress dungeon is an area that is dominated by one large group of intelligent creatures, that work together in an organized fashion.  This might be your classic Fortress of Orcs, or it could be a colony of giant ants.  Either way, they have a large organized social structure, work well together, and will adapt quickly if problems develop.    In my opinion, this is one of the most dangerous threat structures, if only because it’s so easy to get mobbed, and the creatures will adapt.

This is a kind of dungeon where the value of information scarcity flips over to the players – the party are the ones trying to stealth their way in, and getting discovered will lead to a hard fight or likely loss.   Unless the monsters have moved into a cave system or ruins of another space, it’s quite likely that the dungeon will be relatively well laid out, and thus, not as confusing or maze like.

You don’t get a lot of monster variety or hazards in this kind of dungeons, which usually makes it less likely to be used.  The D&D Against the Giants type modules worked because the issues of being human sized in giant-zones meant their normal furniture, etc. created the hazards and complications rather than collapsed tunnels and ruined bridges.


Faction dungeons are have several intelligent monster groups which are working at odds with each other.  This may be a cold war tension between them or out and out violence.  These are great for doing dungeon politics type games – players can take sides, set up groups to fight each other, etc.

Like the Fortress type dungeons you have groups who are organized, and there is a possibility of getting mobbed, but because the groups are afraid of getting overwhelmed by other groups, they’ll often play defensively – only committing some of their forces as to never leave things like their food supplies or treasure, unprotected.  Adaptability can be quite high, and while there may be traps, most are probably deterrents or “alarms” rather than  anything else.

A tricky thing to consider is this: if you have all these groups who are raiding each other, trying to stay alive with whatever resources they can get, what is their first assumptions about intruders/newcomers?  What is that assumption like if they see you fighting their enemies?  What is that assumption if you’re fighting their allies?  What if you come across their bodies from a skirmish they had with someone else, but a witness sees you and assumes you did it?   Are their racial or historical issues affecting it too? (“They hate Dwarves.”)  This shifting role of views and attitudes can turn this sort of thing into a very interesting space for rolelplaying and political moves.

Tying it all together

This is the actual process I use, in this order.

1.  What the Players Want (length of game, interest in a single dungeon, Exploration/Logistics/Tactics ratio)

2.  Concept/Theme+ Threat Structure 

3.  Draw the map and give the actual dungeon layout using fun play tricks

4. Specifics of Monsters, Traps, Hazards, Puzzles, etc.

Steps 1 & 2 go quickly for me – usually this is a 5-10 minute process since I know my players, have a good idea of how long they’d like to commit, and then just need a cool idea for a dungeon.

Steps 3 and 4 I prep just enough for 1-2 sessions at first and that takes 1-2 hours for crunchy games like D&D 3E or 4E.  Since I usually run a 2-4 hour session game, I know how much engagement density the players will push through, and can prep accordingly.  After the first session or two, that prep time drops to 30-45 minutes a session.  If something like Tunnels and Trolls, then we’re talking 10-30 minutes prep at most.

Prep vs. Payoff Balance

One issue is that as you play higher level games, the players get access to all kinds of movement options (burrowing, phasing through objects, teleporting, etc.) that can let them leapfrog a lot of areas in a dungeon.   This means you’re going to have to prep a lot more dungeon as the amount of prep time you do provides less and less guaranteed engagement density.

This becomes killer if your game system also has a narrow range for balancing encounters – you have to prep a lot more with more detail, but you also may have the party jumping ahead of where they should be or missing expected resources or magical items because they skipped ahead (or, they might have an easier time escaping or luring a fight to somewhere you don’t expect because of these abilities.)  This can be one reason you see GM burnout- you’re doing more and more work to get sorta the same play balance, but it’s just getting harder and harder to catch up.

Next: Information Management (Aka, how do I organize all of this?)

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Dungeons Part Three: Running a Dungeon

July 18, 2014

So, now we’ve covered some basic theory about the design, and laid out the fact different groups want very different kinds of challenge from a dungeon delving game… let’s go into more specific applications to play.  (if this looks like a lot… well, it is. Like I said, dungeon design is level design is game design.  Doing it well requires a lot of forethought and there is a reason the videogame industry PAYS people, full time to do this kind of stuff…)

On the Grid, To the Table

Depth vs. Novelty

Aside from constructing your dungeons to meet your players’ particulars about Exploration/Logistics/Tactics, you also need to think realistically about whether your group wants a longer, megadungeon or a short dungeon they can clear quickly, and, how long that should go.  People really like having benchmarks to go by and a sense of accomplishment.

One of the problems is that a lot of old school dungeon building advice assumes weekly games, long sessions, over years of play… and ends up teaching people to “put the cool stuff” deeper in the dungeon.  (It’s also why I think the modules aimed at higher level play were generally pretty popular – the cool stuff kicks in at the beginning much more often).

Prep only what you need so you don’t end up wasting a ton of time on something that’s not going to show up in play.

Engagement Density

How fast will the players encounter challenges, puzzles, or rewards in the dungeon?  This isn’t so much how far apart are they spaced physically, as much as it’s a question of action time at the game table – “Oh, they should get through this room and into the next with 10 minutes of play.  That fight should take 30 minutes.”

This is a highly variable thing, but you can see that density is much higher if the dungeon is laid out simply, if the challenges/puzzles/rewards are tightly clustered, if there’s not a lot of obstacles from point A to point B, if there’s not a lot of traps or secret doors or other obstacles slowing movement or forcing the players to be extra cautious.

One of the old school pieces of advice is “Most rooms should be empty” which, may be more realistic, but it’s not particularly fun to have most of the rooms empty – it means a lot of wandering around to find the fun, and also, if the game features traps, ambushes, or cool rewards hidden away, a lot of time spent searching and cautiously entering every room.  Empty rooms are generally not fun.  It also means you have to either spend more time coming up with creative descriptions of non-interesting areas, OR give it a barebones boring description as well…And, you’re competing with every other kind of game your players could be playing right now – so you want pretty high engagement density.  (Check out Spacing The Threats below for a bit on the strategic issues with this, too.)

Obvious Exits and Highlighted Secrets

When a videogame is doing it’s job, you have a good idea of where to go, or what to do next.   When a videogame is doing poor design, you’re lost, you’re stuck, your not even sure what you should be trying to do.  Videogames have quickly recognized that players need adequate information to make meaningful choices, and poorly communicating that makes it feel like you’re being cheated rather than challenged.

This is “obvious exits” – big colorful paths pointing the way, a giant gate, a glowing door, or more subtle, lights right at the entrance, etc.  In roleplaying, be sure to point out the things that are obvious and important to the characters – make “obvious exits”, whether that’s literal exits or things worth interacting with.

The other trick videogames do is for many games, there’s often tiny clues or giveaways that something is a secret area worth poking at.  A statue out of place among similar statues, a place where all the flowers are colored differently for no apparent reason, etc.

Why prep a bunch of secret things if no one ever finds it?  Unlike a videogame, you’re not going to have thousands of players running through your dungeon, nor will people be able to play alone and poke at the dungeon, so you actually want to give better odds of finding stuff for your group just to make it worthwhile.  These highlights do not have to tell the group HOW to get into/at the secret, just that it’s worth investigating.

Dungeon Pitfalls: Red Herrings

Lots of dungeons and dungeon advice seems to have Red Herrings – things that look important, but turn out to have no secret at all.   This is a terrible thing to do.  You end up wasting your players’ time, and it teaches them NOT to look or investigate on things that seem weird, but to pass them up for things they KNOW are worth their time.    It’s like the Empty Room of features.

From the Grid to the Players


While it’s easy to see the dungeon as mazes + monsters, it’s also fun to consider how the dungeon can be a piece of world building for your game.  As the players wander through an area, give them descriptions based on their characters’ understanding of what they’re seeing.  Fill your dungeons with history – the Dwarf recognizes the carvings of a lost Dwarven Kingdom, a human sees old shields with insignias from an army that was defeated in her mother’s lifetime, etc.  Give more details to players whose characters have history or knowledge skills as would be appropriate.

If you can, make these relevant to actual conflicts/characters they meet now, not just random filler.  Maybe they find out the friendly wizard in town, his family used to live in this keep before it fell into ruins.  Maybe the Cult of the Red Savior is actually a terrible misunderstanding of an Elvish mural from a famous play…

Groups that love lore and history will eat this up.  This pushes on some players’ love of Exploration, but it bores people who don’t really go for setting and world building stuff.

Dungeon Politics

Not all of the monsters are working together.  They might even be in the same army/cult/whatever but have internal rivalries.  Where there are intelligent creatures in the dungeon, you can assume many of them either have alliances, rivalries, or out and out hatred for each other, and when the PCs enter the mix, all these groups will respond to what happens.   Smart players can make allies or get monsters to take each other out.    There might be creatures who need to be rescued or protected – in which case you have a heroic situation int he making.  You can set up all the usual issues of politics, needs, and pressure among the monsters and just make sure it gets communicated to the players as you play.

Groups that love social roleplaying and deception schemes love this kind of thing.   Players who don’t care and simply want to kick in doors won’t care.

Leaving a Mark

Dungeon delving is disruptive… things get damaged, destroyed, entire monster groups get driven out or wiped out.    If this dungeon is going to be a focus of play for many sessions, take notes of this.  Note how the players change the setting and how the creatures react.  Be sure to remind the players as they return through areas, all the little (or not so little) marks they’ve left:

“You still see the arrow shaft near the top of the door where you fought the Ghost Knight.”

“The stench of the rotting giant lizard is nearly completely gone, scavengers have picked it over pretty well.”

“It’s easy to find the secret door again, you just look for the charred blast marks on the stone from the fireball fight a few weeks ago…”

While it’s easy to just have superficial things, also make and expect objects for the players to break or use to change the possible ways to MOVE in the dungeon itself.  Maybe the players used magic to form a tunnel between two rooms that didn’t exist before, or they toppled a giant statue over a chasm to serve as a bridge.

These little things are just FUN, and it gives the players something they don’t get from videogames – a chance to realize the dungeon isn’t an unchanging, automated area to run through.

Adapting Threats

This is a dial – on one end, the creatures in the dungeon do not change or adapt in response to the players.  This is pretty much like a videogame at this end.  On the other end, the dungeon dwellers set up traps, move, cave in areas or build barricades, set up complex ambushes, etc.    Now, the dial doesn’t just affect how dangerous the dungeon is, but it also affects the engagement density…

See, one of the benefits to a longer dungeon delve is familiarity with areas you’ve already gone through and relative safety to run in or out of those areas.  If the areas are repopulating with new creatures, or the other dungeon dwellers are already moving in and changing things, it means previous “cleared” areas are not actually cleared at all.  (I’ll go into some options of what this can look like in the next post.)

It’s realistic and dynamic, and that part is fun, but it also means the players might feel like they’re getting nowhere in beating the dungeon.   The time it takes to get through areas you’ve run through before stops being fun and becomes a chore if the threats are too dense or it happens all the time.

Talk to your group!  Some folks really like the idea of a living world and having to adapt to meet it, other folks feel like it makes play feel like an unrewarding struggle.


Logic Puzzles vs. Context Puzzles

Puzzles are hard to do in tabletop play for two reasons – puzzle games are normally a solitary activity.  You can take all the time you want to mull over it, put down the videogame or walk away from the puzzle book and think about it while you go about your day and come back and then solve a puzzle.   When you’ve got a group of people at the table, everyone’s time is on the line and you can’t quite do this the same way.   This is the reason most puzzles in tabletop games are side options – they open an extra area, or give you some extra bonus, but they’re not the core of play.

You end up with two types of puzzles – logic vs. context puzzles.  A logic puzzle focuses on elimination or procedure to create the puzzle – things like the fox, the hen, and the corn across the river kind of things.  You know what your end goal is, you’re just not sure what order to do things in.  Or process of elimination type puzzles, which again, you know there’s one correct answer, you just have to figure out all the ones that aren’t it.

The one problem with logic puzzles is that your group is either skilled with them or not.  If they are, they solve these in short order and the puzzle becomes a minor chore rather than a fun thing.  If they aren’t it requires more work, and then comes the question of how much work is still fun vs. crossing over the line where they just decide to ignore it.

Context puzzles depend on context outside of the game – stuff like riddles, knowledge of greek mythology, etc.  These never work that well because not only does it depend on the players having that context, it also depends on the players thinking in a completely different context than the world the game is taking place in – so they might know the answer but not think of it from that alone.  I see people post about “the players didn’t get it! It was SO OBVIOUS.” and it’s like… no, actually, context puzzles are never really obvious.

Spacing The Threats

One point of Engagement Density is monsters.  How tightly packed are the monsters?  If there’s a fight in one room, why don’t they all run and mob the party right away?  This is the issue of spacing threats, and I believe, one of the reasons old school dungeon advice often recommends a lot of empty rooms – to give the party a better chance at survival.  That said, I still think the empty room technique is bad for game play.

If the monsters are not cooperative with each other, many will probably stick to certain safe areas, or only come out some time after things have quieted down, looking for carrion or things to scavenge.  Intelligent monsters might hear the commotion and decide the best thing to do is hide or fortify defenses until they know what’s going on.

If the monsters are cooperating with each other, that’s a much harder set up.  You can have them with lax and poorly considered communication situations (outposts far out in the dungeon outside of hearing distance), drunk or lazy or absent guards, or perhaps other problems preventing them from reaching each other (like other monsters between them).   Even well organized groups may have internal rivalries that get in the way – “Intruders are attacking the east tunnels?  Let them!  If Captain Grimfanger dies, I get command!”

If you are dealing with an organized group of monsters, who do work together well, your threat is multiplied GREATLY.  Assume any encounters will be with many of the nearby groups as well, and figure out how long it will take for them to figure out there is danger, grab their gear, and get down there.  In older D&D, where a round was 1 full minute, that was usually only a few rounds at best.  In newer D&D and many other games, a round of combat is 10 seconds, 6 seconds, or even less.  It’s quite probable that a combat will be over before the reinforcements arrive… buying the party a little bit of time to set up.

Strategic Space: Chokepoints and Flanking

When you design your dungeon, if your players like tactical challenges, you have to consider a variety of space in which to move and fight.  Realistically… dungeons were cramped, small and not particularly great spaces to have fights in.   Realistically, you don’t get wizards or dragons either, so screw realism.  Whereas overall dungeon design benefits from learning from Metroidvania videogame design, most Tactical play design benefits specifically from looking at the level design philosophies in First Person Shooters.

Usually, two types of set ups work well for interesting tactical play, along with gearing fight sets specifically to whatever stunting/tactical bits your particular game system supports:

Open space plus obstacles

A larger room where the whole party can fight.  This is usually going to be 30-40 feet on the smallest end, and up to 100 feet on the large end (with anything bigger than that being so large as to being a “open field” as far as tactics are concerned.

This space will do well with a few obstacles in it that can be used as cover, things to get around, climb on, etc.   This can be support pillars, furniture, book shelves, fallen debris and supports, pits and cave ins, etc.  All of the junk serves to provide places of defense, choke points and things to flank around.  Ranged attackers must deal with cover, melee attackers need to move around these things.  Clever use of powers and magic might alter the terrain some, and monsters may be able to ignore or easily deal with some of these barriers – a swarm of bugs just flows through/over it, a giant monster might casually topple anything while coming after you…

Tunnels and Flank positions

The small cramped areas are fine, as long as there is plenty of paths to flank each other.  It gives the party multiple avenues from which to protect from attacks, and avenues in which to launch them.  It rewards cautious players for covering the sides or rear areas, and it rewards the clever players for finding ways to attack the enemy from the side or behind.  Don’t forget this can include vertical movement – climbing up onto something and jumping down is also a flanking move.

You can adjust a lot of difficulty based on how well the monsters make use of this.  Things that can climb on walls, burrow through the dungeon, are amorphous or outright ethereal are absolutely terrifying threats in tunnel fights.  Think of the xenomorph from Alien and you’ve got a good idea of how bad it can get.  This becomes worse if the creatures not only are good at setting up flanking and ambushes, but regularly use retreating tactics to wear a party down.

Also remember that winning the fight can be separate from beating the opposition.

Fun Traps vs. Crap Traps

The “game” part of any roleplaying game depends on this: what choices do you have to make, and why is it fun to make those choices?

In many dungeon crawls, traps are shit.   The choices you make are not really choices.   It’s either “woops, roll a random die to see how badly you get maimed” or it’s a choice of “Spend a tedious amount of time, searching everything, for traps, all the time, or suffer.”  Those aren’t fun choices.  (Now mind you, if you were playing very old school D&D where everyone gets 10-20 PCs, what happens is a trap takes out 1-2 of your guys, THEN you have a choice about dealing with it with the remaining party.)

Fun traps are mostly puzzle traps.  They’re elaborate deals that take several turns to kick off, and you have to figure out how to get out or disable them while they’re in action.  This requires a lot of forethought into making sure the goals/options are obvious, but the procedures in doing so are more complicated.  For the usual “dangerous dungeon feel”, I prefer Hazards…


A rickety bridge, a partially collapsed wall, a room half flooded…  Hazards aren’t traps in the sense that someone set them up and hid them, they’re obvious things that are a pain in the rear to navigate, or things that are obviously dangerous.   The fun in hazards isn’t information scarcity – you see them, you see they’re trouble, but it’s in the Logistics of getting past them, and how you can use them as choke points or ways of hurting the monsters.

Hazards also require less justification.  You don’t need to explain things like “Why the hell would someone build this falling block trap HERE?  How the hell do they reset it?” etc.  Hazards are just the natural ruin of the place and it makes rather mundane skills like climbing, jumping, balancing, repairing/jury rigging things, using poles, hammers, spikes, ropes, etc. a fun thing to add into your game.

Next: How to build your dungeon starting with Threat Structure as your theme.

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Dungeons Part Two: What Players Want

July 17, 2014

One of the strengths of dungeon or map-based tabletop games is that it provides you with a nice set of prepared material to run play with.  The players go somewhere, and stuff happens based on that – you’re never having to consider issues like story pacing or scene cutting in the same way for games that are not location based.

As I said in Dungeons Part One, just because everyone wants a “dungeon crawl” still doesn’t mean they want the same kind of game.  The focus or balance of Exploration, Logistics and Tactics means you not only need to run a dungeon differently, but the kind of material you should prep vs. leave out is also very different.  And the answer is not just “prep as much as possible”, because you have to also make the information something you can navigate and use easily – plus the reality is why spend hours prepping material you’re not going to use?

Start from the goal: find out what your players want from this game, then figure out what information you’ll need in play based on that.

What the Players Want


  • Fights should be: balanced to meet the player characters / might be unmatched to the party
  • Fights should be: avoided / sought out
  • Fights are: rare / regular


  • Threats are well balanced to the party
  • Threats might be too powerful for the party to deal with right away
  • Some threats may be too dangerous, overall


  • Supplies are not really an issue, they’re background color to play
  • Supplies are a minor issue, as long as you bought enough food, that’s fine
  • Supplies are a significant issue – track food and torches, etc.


  • Player characters should try to explore everything / prioritize and pick what to explore
  • Secret doors, treasure, and traps will be: obvious / depending on dice rolls/ require explicit declarations of inspecting/investigating/searching
  • Players are expected to draw a detailed map / the GM will provide/show a map as play goes on / players do not need to worry about making specific navigation choices during play


  • Assumed competence – the GM assumes the characters are cautious, searching, etc.
  • General narration – if the players say their searching a room, the GM assumes it is a good and relatively through job
  • Specific narration – the players must describe exactly how they’re searching/interacting with any object for it to be true.


  • There will/will not be anything that can kill/incapacitate you instantly, by surprise
  • There will/will not be any poisoned/cursed/trapped objects
  • Traps/hazards will be absent / rare / common and/or absolutely lethal
  • No mercy: the walls, floor, ceiling, doors and treasure chests all might want to eat you.


  • Players should/should not try to negotiate with intelligent monsters, creatures, or NPCs.
  • The party of PCs should always work together/sometimes/might betray each other utterly.
  • Players are/are not expected to roleplay the lives of characters outside of adventuring

As a Group

Now, you could sit down with this full list and run your whole group through it, though I suspect unless they’re theory-heads and excited to do a long haul dungeon crawl, it’s not going to actually get them excited but rather kill some of their enthusiasm and not provide enough value for the amount of time it takes.  The important thing to do is to start by sussing out what excites people from the Exploration/Logistics/Tactics side and then try to narrow down with some of these ideas.

When it comes down to “Ok, everyone, let’s play a dungeon crawl” conversation as a commitment, then lay out some of these ideas as you plan on going with (with some room for modification) but primarily as a way of communicating the expectations of this to folks.

“Hey, talking to everyone, no one really likes traps in games, so in this game, they’re only going to show up as big puzzle ‘death traps’ to solve when they do.  I know Quinn likes tactical combat, and Jono likes the strategy of sneaking around, so we’ll have a bit of both – there’ll be fights but there’s also going to be fights to run from or avoid.” etc.

You may notice that some games or adventure modules are designed in certain ways or modules set up that hits specific combinations on that Exploration/Logistics/Tactics ratio, and these serve as ways to get players on the same page quickly and easily – “Tomb of Horrors” already preps everyone to be in a deathtrap dungeon mentality, while Torchbearer is a game about Logistics management.  You can also see people make manifestos or movements as ways to formalize these preferences – Fourthcore, E6, “Rulings not Rules” etc.

Wants -> Play Estimates -> Prep Needs

If you know what your players want in their game, you can start making good estimates on how much play will come from what kind of preparation.   A combat focused game might simply require 3 combat encounters to prep and then you’ve got a full session from that.  Another game might involve 2-4 traps spread across 8 rooms and some interesting descriptions and you know the players will spend t a lot of time searching, poking and prodding things.

Part of that will also be you figuring out how much of your prep work deals with mechanics (writing down monster stats, drawing maps for detailed positioning, etc.) and how much of the prep is more about creative spark and inspiration (memorable descriptions, personalities, etc.)

All of this means you can become very efficient with your prep – prepping just the right kind of material when you create a dungeon, knowing how much you need to prepare in advance vs. deal with later vs. improvise on the spot, and what kind of resources you can use as inspiration/places to steal ideas from.   This also means if your game falls apart or goes on hiatus, you lost 1 session of prep, and not a month of prep work languishing in a notebook to probably be forgotten when you next run the game.

You’re not just designing the dungeon for the players to play, you’re also designing the dungeon for you to run, and these are both important.

Next up: Running a Dungeon

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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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