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Dungeon Design Assumptions

Whether you're playing out of the little white box, the Basic Set, 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition (or 3.5), Pathfinder, or 4th edition, dungeons come into the game. But dungeons mean different things to different people. At, I plan on taking a rather old school approach--but even the meaning of that term varies depending on who you ask. So, I thought it valuable to share the assumptions I'm making as I design the dungeon.Adventurers going down into a pit

These, then, are my Ten Tenets of Dungeon Design.

1. Things get more dangerous as you go deeper. This is perhaps the keystone of old school dungeon design. As you get farther from civilization and into the wilderness, the more dangerous things get. So then, it just makes sense that the farther you get from the surface, the deadlier and stranger things get. In both cases, the farther you travel from the known to the unknown, the greater risk you take. 

3rd Edition created a system that used Challenge Ratings to match relatively appropriate encounters to a given group of player characters (the key word being "relatively"). Matching monster toughness with PC toughness has always been in the game in one form or another, of course. But in dungeon design, this isn't that important, because the dungeon level dictates (or at least suggests) the difficulty of the encounters. Things too easy? Go down. Things getting pretty dicey? Go back up. Of course, finding the way up or down isn't always easy, but that's what makes it fun.

2. Treasure and other rewards are based on challenges overcome, not PC level. Again, 3rd Edition created a gauge to determine appropriate wealth for PCs of a given level. But if the challenge determines the rewards (either based on how hard it was to get to the treasure, or the guardians that must be defeated to obtain it), then this should take care of itself. It does mean that skillful--or perhaps lucky--player characters will be able to get more treasure than average ones, but that's a good thing, if you ask me.

Let's look at points 1 and 2 together for a moment. Basically, the assumption here is that players will need to manage risk versus reward. In a standard campaign, the DM controls the level of challenge for the players. But in a dungeon like this, the players can choose to seek encounters that might be too challenging for them in order to get bigger rewards, or stay and face easy challenges for low rewards. This is sometimes referred to as a "sandbox dungeon," because the DM just presents a sandbox in which the PCs to do whatever they want, and go wherever they want.

3. There's a happy medium that embraces both realism and fun. When discussing dungeons with people, you hear all kinds of things:

  • "Dungeons aren't realistic. I don't like them."
  • "Dungeons can be made to be realistic, but then they aren't much fun."
  • "Dungeons are terribly unrealistic, and we love that about them!"

Somewhere between the people who want realism (or at least, believability) and those who want wa-hoo fun, there is a broad middle ground where most people can find something to enjoy. That means neither a careful and detailed study of the dungeon's ecological balance nor a 30 foot long dragon in a 20-foot by 20-foot room with no way for it to exit. The dungeon's got to avoid obvious, glaring challenges to a player's suspension of disbelief while not bogging the text down in details that no one will pay any attention to anyway. You can expect to read more from me on this topic in blog entries as we go along.

4. The dungeon is dynamic and huge--there's no clearing out the dungeon. This gets to the heart of the difference between what I call a megadungeon and a regular dungeon. (Some might call the former a dungeon and the latter a lair.) The point here is that regular dungeons are small--5, 10, even 30 rooms--and megadungeons are vast, with hundreds of rooms. The megadungeon is an environment, not just a locale. In many ways, it's like many joined dungeons, connected lairs, and so on. Kill a monster and another might wander in and take its place. The dungeon detailed here--called Dragon's Delve--is a megadungeon.

There's another point to be made here: the megadungeon may be more than just an underground complex. The megadungeon adventure might include a side trip to a wilderness locale, a gate to another plane, a teleporter to a mystical forest far away, and so on. It's all a part of the megadungeon, even when it's not entirely underground.

5. The player characters are not the first adventurers to explore this place, and they won't be the last. As they explore, your PCs will find the remains of previous adventurers. They will hear about other parties coming to the dungeon to test their own mettle. They may even encounter them while delving into the depths themselves. This contributes to the dynamism of the dungeon environment.

6. Although there are many entrances, and many ways to get from level to level, this dungeon is being presented so that the PCs are unlikely to get ahead of the design. This doesn't mean things are linear (because linear dungeons are bad dungeons). It just means that sometimes access to certain areas will be temporarily blocked. For example, there's a pit on Level 1, at the bottom of which is a secret one-way door that allows creatures to go from Level 2 to Level 1. But because of its nature, it doesn't allow creatures to go from Level 1 to Level 2 (at least, not until someone gets to it on Level 2 and spikes it open. The DM can choose to get rid of these "safeguards" if he doesn't need them.

7. The rules exist to facilitate the dungeon, not the other way around. Basically, what this means is, if I have a cool idea for an encounter and present it in a way that forces me to bend the rules, I'll do it. If a monster needs an extra feat in order to fulfill its role, I'll just give it the feat.  

I know that the rules were designed the way they were for good reasons. (I mean, c'mon. Consider my design credits.) One of those reasons, of course, is consistency. So I'm not going to throw the rulebook out. But I also know that the rules can't be expected to work in every situation. Rather than resign myself to accepting the occasional Encounter Level based on the formula that doesn't feel quite right, the value of a treasure that seems inappropriate to the specific situation, or the monster whose stats don't allow him to do what he needs to do in a given encounter, I'm going to change them. The key here is that the design needs to fit the specific situation, and the rules were written with general situations in mind. In this dungeon, DCs will fit the situation, even if they don't match the book 100% every time. Encounters will be designed to work the way they need to work for the most fun for all. This is why an actual human being serves as a game designer (or a DM) rather than a computer.

8. Magic gets stronger the deeper you go. This is related to point #1, but it's worth mentioning again. The farther you get from the surface, the more mysterious and strange things become. This means that magical tricks and traps get more powerful, encounter areas get weirder and wilder, ancient treasures are better preserved, and sorcerous and otherworldly creatures are more at home. Basically, the deeper you go, the less the place seems like the undercroft of some quasi-medieval keep and more like a unique, subterranean fantasy environment all its own. And the best part? This doesn't just fit with dungeon design philosophy, but also with the backstory behind Dragon's Delve. There's a reason why there are weird and challenging magical phenomena in the dungeon, and why they occur in greater numbers the farther down you delve. 

Sarcophagus with skulls9. Food is fairly abundant in the dungeon. If you don't mind the taste of rat. The point here is that the dungeon's full of life--rats, bats, insects, and so on. Just because it's not given stats and isn't a threat to the PCs doesn't mean it's not there. And so all the carnivores in the dungeon have enough to get by. Not that they wouldn't mind a tasty treat in the form of an adventurer or two.

10. Every level or sublevel has its own unique character. This is another old school trope and, I must admit, one that I love. The level's character might be expressed in similar inhabitants, a related purpose for the chambers, or a theme of some kind. The prison level. The submerged level. The demon lord's level. I'll be making good use of this aspect of dungeon design. In the months ahead, we'll explore the Aberrant Laboratory, the Domain of the Venom Cult, the Petrified Congregation, the Halls of Hunger, the Secret City (which isn't a city at all), and more.


Art by Howard Lyon and Eric Lofgren