I sat down on Wednesday morning to prep the game for that night. I started with the map of what I had presented so far, then started drawing a new map to extend the dungeon. And stopped instantly. “Why are these rooms here, like this? It doesn’t make sense!” was my thought.  So I ran through the module on some scrap paper, taking notes, and trying to decide what needed to be where.

And I learned some (hopefully) interesting stuff along the way.

Dungeon Design

I’ve always had a problem with dungeon crawls. Part of that is it’s not in my D&D upbringing. I didn’t start playing until 4e, and we tended to be more concerned with saving the world with big boss fights, then checking for traps and mapping dungeons. So now, as a D&D adult, I find them weird.

Part of that, of course, is 5e, which isn’t really designed for dungeon crawls. I don’t know what it is (see my mention of not grokking dungeon crawls, previous paragraph), but for some reason, 5e doesn’t do it well. Maybe it’s because hit points are cheap and plentiful? That would explain why we didn’t do them in 4e. I don’t know.

Anyway, I’m trying to get better about dungeon crawls, which is part of what the Era of Shaky dungeons is about. A decent dungeon is a great way for the GM to have an easy night. Like an explosion in a barrel of a cannon, the party’s chaos isn’t free reign and is instead focused. If you have a solid dungeon on tap, it’s almost like finding a babysitter for a session or two. (This may or may not be in jest)

So, knowing that I need to have GOOD dungeons on tap, I’ve tried to grok them. And there’s been a block in my head trying to put the pieces together. And part of the problem is that dungeons aren’t built like structures we’re used to. Any modern building has too many branching paths, too many choices compared to these dungeons. Where is the disconnect??

Finally, I had a breakthrough with Palace of the Silver Princess (PSP). If you open your copy of PSP to the map of the second level and the corresponding entries, the party is gated through area 48 and 49 as the only way to reach the second level. This path is then routed THROUGH THE PALACE MAGIC-USER’S BEDROOM!! Dude, that’s crazy! Jafar would never allow that! Merlin would never allow that! Yennefer might be okay with it…

So here is my observation. I certify it doesn’t apply 100%, but…

Dungeon design of days gone by is hard to understand, because it is often stupid.

Mystery F-ing solved.

Working from that premise, our next question worthy of a section header is:

Why are dungeons built stupidly?

I can think of a few reasons, although there’s only one that I’ll truly address and attempt to solve for PSP.

Reason the First: The Past Repeating

The first thing I’ll mention actually covers in part the rest of the items in part. And that is that other than a few true innovators, most people get by with repeating what they already know. In this instance, when striking out on their  own, dungeon masters run games that they know how to run, which means they’re perpetuating the type of games that they grew up with.

In terms of dungeons, this means that the first few generations of DMs and modules were created by people either copying Gary Gygax’s style, or Dave Arenson’s style, or intentionally trying to set themselves apart from those styles. The game itself was built around the concepts, found at those tables, which set the tone for the game, no matter the dungeon master or the dungeon designer.

This closed system of D&D is part of where some of it’s tropes crept in, of killer DMs, weird players, and complicated systems. Modern D&D is better, no matter the system, because of how open it is to find people willing to talk about the rules, how easy it is to find games, and how many different tables you can audit via streaming and video services. There is no longer just one way to play D&D, and it’s easy to know that.

So the point of this Reason is to say that any of the other Reasons can be passed down to future players, without them knowing why the use it, the limitations that the method produces or the strengths that this method may present.

(I don’t consider myself an innovator, by the way. I’m just copying from so many sources that my voice shines through into my work.)

Reason the Second: Megadungeons

Invoking the name of Gygax means we should mention Megadungeons. (I just tried a quick google to learn the origin of the word “Megadungeon” and couldn’t find the answer, so I might have to do a deeper dive on that later.)

A Megadungeon is a dungeon so huge it’s the focus and core element of any game involving it. Play revolves around going deeper into the dungeon as you progress. Each level is more deadly, but also more rewarding. Here, sprawling connections of passages, doors, and such is the point of the dungeon.

These can be built brilliantly, but often not. A dungeon not deep enough creates frustration without reward. Generating monsters randomly makes for some stupid and illogical fights (“How did a dragon GET in this room?”) Generating dungeons randomly reduces the gamemaster’s creative control and weakens the experience.

Also, while I’m sure it’s possible to gradually inject story into a megadungeon, the storygamer inside of me cries out for a succinct tale, with foreshadowing and logical rewards.

(Also, to scratch that OSR itch, health and healing in 5e makes megadungeons obsolete. If taking a 2 hp scratch on level 1 mattered when you were heading down to level 10to fight demons, then the question of “What moved in while I was gone?” becomes interesting. It also provides motivation to befriend creatures when you can.)

Reason the Third: Graph Paper

Graph paper is cool. Let’s get that out there. But when you’re filling in a sheet of graph paper to design a dungeon, there is this temptation to fill in everything. You know you shouldn’t, but there’s space there for a secret door, space there for an extra room, and this staircase needs to lead SOMEWHERE. And all of a sudden, you have a sheet of graph paper with 86 keyed rooms.

Reason the Fourth: 2 levels and Module Printing

I don’t have a lot of data points for this, but the old school modules I’m familiar with have maps printed on the inside cover. (Quick aside, WHY DON”T WE DO THIS NOW DAYS??) Of the three modules I’m carrying with me for some reason, two have large double spreads on the back cover, the other (PSP) has two floors, one on the front and the back. I would hazard a guess that a lot of modules have just 2 floors, entirely so they can fit easily in this print scheme.

Also, 2 floors with simple grid maps is much easier to follow without dedicating a lot of space in the text talking about how things connect and what is where.

Reason the Final: Dungeon Force

I wrote 700 words on this topic, before realizing that I had the wrong title. I had called it “Gating,” but gating is a different, if related, technique than can be used in a Dungeon Force. I’m not happy with the term “Dungeon Force,” which is related to the stage magician phrase “Card Force,” but until something better comes along, this is what it is. Dungeon Forces are places in the dungeon where the path becomes linear. In PSP, the dungeon looks like it has plenty of choice, but the paths loop back on each other, then funnel into a single path before widening into loops again. Dungeon force makes it so if you’re trying to complete the story (and you can’t get out, so you better!), they can guaranteed something like 4 combat encounters, the only NPCs of note in the whole dungeon, and the party MUST find one of the big clues.

Now, I get routing the adventure through certain combat encounters, because when you design a cool boss fight, you WANT it to come up. Like, you might be fine if it doesn’t, but you WANT it to go down. Can’t fault that.

The other two things are less excusable in my book. PSP has a lot of different methods to feed a player clues, but the best way to guarantee a player has a clue is to force the critical path down into some caves, up a tower to where a cleric did a prophecy, then up through the random hatch that seems to be the only connection to the second floor, and through the magic user’s quarters?

Sly Flourish’s Secrets is a better way to pass out clues than that.

The other Force would be the bandits, and they’re really odd and I’ll talk about them in a bit.

(There’s actually one more DF that I see, but I sort of talked about it under Megadungeons. New levels of a dungeon was one way game designers balanced the enemies. If they made it to the next floor, the party was either tough enough as characters to weather the storm, smart enough as players to survive, or they deserve everything that coming for them. )

Stupid Dungeon Recap

So, to recap, dungeons are built dumb because:

  • That’s how I learned it
  • That’s how we’ve always done it
  • I got carried away
  • It makes it easier to publish.
  • The stupidity helps me keep the party on track.

These are, of course, reasons that have been abstracted so they look useless. Individually, you can make arguments for them, but together, they make a pretty clear picture for me. My failure to grok dungeons is not my fault, it is the dungeon’s fault.

Intelligent Reconstruction

Now that I don’t HAVE to follow this dungeon map, it’s time to let loose! I start deleting rooms, merging rooms, and moving clues from one place to another. The entire map is getting rebuilt. My scratch paper fills with notes as I start making story clusters out of various pieces.

Actually, I want to thank my obsession with Minecraft as a big part for this redesign. Being  able to rough out 3d maps in my head, especially when you realize a dungeon like this is really a house that’s been scaled oddly. I don’t have it figured out where I could draw all the parts onto graph paper without a lot of trial and error, but my sketches work to make an interesting and complete design.

The layout of the place isn’t the only thing to get some restructure. A lot of the lore is kind of weird, so I’ve been simplifying it as we’ve been going. I’m not entirely sure what the lore is supposed to be, but for me, I’ve added the Protector to my Fey “Pantheon” and made the titular princess his daughter. As excited as I was that the dragon in this adventure was white, changing it to silver makes a LOT of sense.

There’s a lot of work to do for it still, and a lot of that is the hook, but I’m really excited to show what I’ve made this into (once it’s done.)

New type of NPC: Foils

I mentioned there’s a pair of NPCs that the Dungeon Forces an interaction with. I think their base story is cool, but I don’t have a great feel for them. Part of the issue, I think, is that they’re supposed to be a duo, and that’s hard to do as a DM.

So as I was pondering this problem pair of picturesque pilferers, I wondered why I should have them there at all. I mean, sometimes it would be fun, but, like what happened on Wednesday, sometimes the story is better without a sudden social interaction. It interrupted the flow of action.

What I need instead of the 2 characters set up to be here, is a handful of characters who can be in here. That way I can tune the experience to the group based on how I’m feeling as the group encounters them.

I don’t know what I think about this exactly, but it does add replayability to a dungeon. Take Sunless Citadel, for instance. People who follow the core adventure tend to meet Meepo, the kobold guard who’s all distraught over losing his dragon. But making that kobold a dynamic option sounds amazing. You’ll see more of this idea from me, I guarantee!

Magic Item Dispersion

I was really interested in the distribution of magic items in this dungeon. There were plenty of items, but they had an odd distribution. Here, take a gander.

  • Magic weapons: 5
  • Magic Armor: 1
  • Scrolls: 1
  • Magic User items: 1
  • Wondrous: 2
  • Unusable items: 1
  • Cursed with no benefit: 1

Now, some of these are changing, and a lot are getting removed, but I think it’s fascinating that Fighters have 6 options, clerics have 4 items, thieves have 5 and magic-users have 2. It’s also annoying that there is a cool looking sword, who’s lore is awesome, and you can’t use it at all. Says so in the treasure description.  For now.


I’m super out of it today (well, Friday, when I meant to post this), so I’m calling it there. I think I got the important things done, though, and that’s what’s important. If you have questions about specifics, hit me up and I might cover it again.

As much work as this has been, I’ve been enjoying this experience.

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