Building Dungeons for Stories

March 14, 2021

I’m currently running a game of Perilous, which is a fairly rules light fantasy game. Half of my players have never played a dungeon crawl, and, I wanted to give a light taste of it without going into counting torches or having to make your own map or any of that. I have written previously about the crunchy aspects of dungeon layout (see the whole Dungeon Design series halfway down the link bar on the right side of this page), but I wanted to go a bit over the ideas and set up for making dungeons built around non-gamist needs.

“It’s closer than you think.”

A trope that is good for books, movies and videogames but not so good for RPGs is the idea that dangerous places like dungeons are very far from civilization and other people. Sure, you can ramp up how far away help is, or supplies, but the flip side is you lose a lot of room for character interaction and stakes.

See, if the dungeon is not too far from people, then the risk of monsters wandering out is a problem. The risk of people wandering in, is also a problem. Maybe kids were playing and wandered in, maybe a travelling peddler tried to hang out in the ruins to avoid a storm… keeping the dungeon near people means you cna play with the idea of the dungeon being poreous – you might encounter NPCs anywhere inside, you might encounter monsters coming out.

Town points to dungeon, dungeon points to town

This sets up the second point; you should have NPCs who need you to go into the dungeon, and you should have things in the dungeon that need you to go to a nearby town.

Robbing a grave for coins is not heroic, rescuing those kids who wandered in the dungeon and stopping the road to the town over from being over run with skeletons is. Helping the young wizard find his grandfather’s stolen spell book or the dwarven prince find the remains of his brother who braved the dungeon a decade ago, those are heroic.

Likewise, that weird book you found in the dungeon might be a language you can’t read, but the librarian in the town, can. You can’t smith those bars of mitril yourself, but the master smithy can. Even if you take out the classic tracking of supplies or needing to sell treasures, the dungeon and the town can be tightly linked.

Purposeful Space vs. “Dungeon Dressing”

I’ve seen some adventure models or ideas where the dungeon looks a bit like a poorly set up procedural generated area from a videogame – you have things that should go into the area, but they’re all set next to each other in weird ways (“There’s a clawfoot bathtub in the garage?”). These are what I consider to be built by considering everything “dungeon dressing” without context- “Of course you have to have a torture room” “Of course there’s a room with a lava pit in the middle” etc. and while these certainly make for fun and weird hazard spaces, they’re not particularly great for anything else.

I’ve also seen books and posts go into historical architecture, and, unless you and your group are into those things, that’s probably overkill too.

Instead, think of what the area was used for, and what things that entails. If there’s a dining hall, the kitchen isn’t too far away, and the kitchen will be near a pantry/storage area. If there are soldiers, there are barracks, an armory, and a place to train. All of these things might be in ruin, now, or have been changed to serve a different purpose by the point the party shows up, but if you have an idea of what it started as, you can improvise a lot of details for furniture, decorations or what might be around.

Partial Information is more fun than no information

Partial information is more interesting in dungeon crawls than full information or no information. No information gives the players no chance to think about it or make any meaning choice of it. Full information usually has obvious answers. Partial information means having to guess, plan for problems and try to find ways to get better information.

In my Perilous game, I’ve already twice foreshadowed “some creature” being behind a heavy door, snuffling at the ground then slamning against the door when people are too close. Now the players are both wondering what the hell it is as well as where in the dungeon is safe to go. The only way to really find out for sure is to go looking for it – which is dangerous, or to try to avoid it, which… not knowing is ALSO dangerous.

Partial information builds tension, suspense, and makes things into a gamble. Perfect for stories.

Hazards over traps

Again, partial information is more fun than full information or no information. Hazards present problems that players can come up with solutions, whether those are mundane answers or magical.

Traps are a common dungeon trope, but, as many people are seeing, the two basic methods of using them in a game have issues as well. You can abstract the trap to a skill roll to avoid/deal with – in which case, there’s no choice being made by the players, it’s just a random luck roll thrown at them sometimes. Or you can make the traps something players can describe searching for, and how they deal with them, which is fun for the rare player who likes that kind of puzzle and not fun for everyone else.

Now, you might point to videogames where traps work well – for example, Dark Souls or Legend of Zelda – however in those cases a) death has no real long term consequence, b) player skill is involved in avoiding these things, and c) many cases the traps are clearly telegraphed (“giant swinging blades over a bridge”) and the challenge isn’t being surprised, it’s trying to have the twitch reflexes to deal with avoidng the trap.


You can look up photos of abandoned places and get some good ideas for what you might do with a dungeon. Sure, there may not be a 50’s style TV left abandoned in your dungeon, but you can look at what appens to palace when the roof caves in and years of rain tear through floor after floor. What does it look like when animals make a nest in a place. You can find images of places where they find out they built over stuff like a Roman plaza generations ago, and get an idea of what happens when things fall into ruin or are built over, and over, repeatedly.


There’s basically three types of monsters that work well for these things, which is not to say they’re the only ones to use, just that they work -better-. I’m using the word “monsters” but obviously we’re including both natural creatures and just, well, people. Part of what makes intelligent monsters interesting is that they can be bargained with, tricked, or convinced.

Monsters with an Agenda

Monsters with an Agenda are sentient, probably can speak with the characters, and are quite active about either sending minions or going directly out to get stuff from the world outside the dungeon. The classic “evil sorcerer kidnapping people” is a perfect example but it could work in a lot of ways. Because they’re intelligent, they will be very reactive to the party’s actions as well as other NPCs and that makes them very dynamic.

Conflicting Communities

Two or more groups of intelligent monsters are at odds within the dungeon space itself. This usually entails having a much larger dungeon to accomodate the groups. The politics of the groups allows players to align themselves with one, both, or neither group depending on the situation.

These types of monsters only work if you plan on having a longer campaign, since the politics and interactions leads to more complicated play. If you’re not going to focus around conflicting communities, I recommend smaller dungeons generally, because a story isn’t just “things happen” but focus around a theme or a situation, and a smaller dungeon lets you hand that better than a sprawl, especially if you want to play with the town and the dungeon pointing at each other more.

Holdover Monsters

So once there was a community here, before the place became ruins. They had raised, summoned, or built creatures to guard, to labor, or to eat and they’re still here. Maybe it’s only a pack of dangerous dogs, maybe it’s a gargoyle guardian that attacks everyone who tries to enter a particular room. Maybe it’s a magical experiment gone wrong. If you know the purpose of the dungeon and have a general story of what happened there, it’s easy to come up with holdover monsters.

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