Dungeon Design: Specific Tricks

July 25, 2015

The new job has eaten up a lot of my brain and energy the last 2 months.  However, I have been taking in game design videos and articles here and there, and picking up some interesting ideas from the world of videogames and figured it’d be worth talking about some ideas that port over well to tabletop dungeoncrawls and further expanding on my previous set of dungeon design posts.

Effort to Play ratio

One thing to realize is that you have to manage how much time you put into designing areas for a dungeon crawl against how much play you’ll get out of it.

The classic GM burnout comes out of pouring lots of hours of design into things the players will run past without a thought.  Videogames can afford to do great design in their levels because thousands of players will get into the game, and in most cases, there’s a decent level of replayability – so the areas will see a significant amount of re-use.

If you’re just going to have the party run through an area once, there’s not much point in putting too much work into designing it.  If this is going to be an area they revisit and deal with in multiple sessions, then these tricks make more sense.

Preview Spaces

One of the key things in dungeon design is information control – if you can have some idea of what’s ahead,  you can prepare for it.  The problem is that many tabletop games are run where the dungeon gives you zero future information, which means the players can’t really plan ahead, so they just have to stumble forth from battle to battle – no strategy.

However, if you give preview spaces – an area where you can see ahead to something else you can’t reach (the other side of the iron bars blocking the path, the other side of the chasm, the garden below the balcony), you can give previews to what is ahead.  It’s not just enough to see a space, it’s also important to consider what makes that space interesting – and that usually comes in one of the following flavors:


“You’re not quite sure, but you swear you see the form of a wolf, slipping out past the wall when you look out across the yard.”    Forewarning players of danger allows them to plan and to stay on their toes.  This can be obvious danger like a monster, or it could be an indication of a fight that happened recent – “There’s bodies and smoldering torches. This couldn’t have been too long ago…”


“The other side of the gap you can see a turned over cart, and the gleam of silver spilling from the torn bags.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the bridge wasn’t out…”  Resources get the players to think about how to get to them, and perhaps to push ahead to try to get to that area quicker.


“Above in the bell tower, you can see an unearthly blue glow…”  Mystery is one of those things players can see going either way – but it definitely gets them curious.

Easy Preview Zones

A few types of areas lend themselves naturally towards previews and you can use them in a lot of different contexts.


Balconies, viewpoints, rooftops, walls, windows, bridges, walkways, ladders, towers, stairs, hills with winding paths.   Think of being on these, at the top of them, or underneath them looking up.


Gates, doors, walls, windows, cracks in walls, holes in floors, ceilings.


Chasms, rivers, broken bridges.

Pitfalls to Preview areas

Now, there is a pitfall to this that is particularly important to tabletop design – in a videogame, you can accept a bunch of weird things like invisible walls or limitations that you wouldn’t accept in a tabletop game.  Players can come up with a lot of creative methods to get around/across/up/down things you wouldn’t think of, and it becomes even more true when you add in magic or super powers.

In most dungeon crawl games, as play continues, the players gather more and more means to circumnavigate the obstacles that divide preview areas.  This is effectively why dungeons either become totally pointless after a certain point where the power curve is exceeded (“We can fly, burrow, teleport, breath water, and turn insubstantial. Nothing can stop us.”) or become ridiculous magical mazes (“Everything is magical forcefields, adamantine walls and null-magic zones”).

Gating Opposition

One of the key points to a dungeon crawl is controlling the flow of encounters – you don’t want the whole dungeon of monsters to jump the players right away, so you have to figure out how to keep things from getting out of hand – it becomes important to think about how you gate the monsters and NPCs and keep them from running everywhere as much as you would the players.


One way is if the monsters are limited to a specific type of terrain.  Your water-breathing fishman can’t really go chasing everyone around the dungeon – they have to stay in, or close to, water.

While this is a great way to have a strong gating mechanism, it also only works for a few monsters – presumably most breath air, or can survive in the areas where the player characters can.   You can set up a few things like undead that will only stay in dark areas or magically empowered constructs that can only operate within a magically empowered zone, but overall this is hard to do for the majority of creatures.


Big monsters can’t fit through small tunnels.  This is a pretty great way to limit the really nasty monsters from being able to run throughout the whole dungeon area.


So, you have a dungeon full of hostile monsters that may fight amongst each other or prey on each other for food… if you were a monster living in this place, you would probably stick to a few safe hunting/foraging zones, or claim a “territory” and not go too far from it, for your own safety as much as anything else.

This means monsters may chase you a certain distance, but back off once you start going into areas they don’t know much about, or areas that they know are populated by the monsters they don’t want to tangle with either.  This works for any kind of creature with animal intelligence or better.

Altering Space

Many people have pointed out that the dungeon isn’t static – new monsters move in, others change territory as the protagonists change the power balance within the area.  However, there’s yet another part which you should consider – the physical space of the dungeon can change as well.

– Intelligent creatures will set up barricades or traps, or repair some areas, or burn bridges

– A fight or battle that happens when the PCs aren’t present might cause damage

– Rain, melting snow, flooding, cave-ins, all of this might contribute to changing the area

– Burrowing creatures might open up new pathways, or collapse existing paths

– Other adventurers might leave climbing gear, nail doors shut, make barricades, etc.

This is particularly fun to do if you’re doing the kind of game where the party has to come back to the dungeon for multiple trips.  Their old maps are mostly good… except something they’ve come to count on has changed, or there’s some sign of some kind of incident that makes them take pause or reconsider the situation.  (“Good news – something killed the GiantClawBeast while we were gone.  Bad news – some THING killed the GiantClawBeast while we were gone, and it probably is still down here…”).

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