Content Warning: this post contains references to fictional death/murder scenarios.
The dungeon is a time-honored feature of tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs). It is even in the title of the most ubiquitous TTRPG of all time.
But what is a dungeon, and why are the player characters (PCs) delving into it?
Traditionally the dungeon was a subterranean structure populated by monsters, traps, and treasure. One of the earliest instances was Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor game that started up in 1970-71 (considered by some to be the first Fantasy TTRPG campaign ever). Basically, there were subterranean dungeons, catacombs, and ancient lairs beneath Castle Blackmoor that the party was tasked with clearing. Gary Gygax would latch onto the concept as well, with some of the original Dungeons & Dragons games being nothing but massive dungeons mapped out over numerous sheets of graph paper. I’m curious if graph paper sales surged in the 70s, 80s, and 90s with the growing popularity of TTRPGs during those decades, before most players turned to computer mapping programs to do most of this?
In these early dungeon crawls, there was only a loose objective, such as, “There’s an evil lich that has set up shop beneath Castle Tengreeves,” or, “A red dragon is dwelling in the dungeon beneath the ruins of Arbormoon,” and maybe the big bad evil monster would be harassing local villages, but generally the motivation was big bad evil monster has a lot of treasure (which may or may not have including something magical). So, the PCs may never really experience life outside of a dungeon during game-play. This was the structure in the very early days, but by the time adventure modules started coming out in the second half of the 70s, the writers started adding in deeper plot elements to the dungeons, and the term “dungeon” became more of an abstract term.
Today, “dungeon” could refer to any setting in a TTRPG. It is a generalized piece of terminology to reference any location prime for exploration, skill usage events, and combat. Playing a cyberpunk genre game? That corporate office your team has to infiltrate is a dungeon. Playing a sci-fi space opera? That derelict space station is a dungeon. Playing a game set on the high seas? That pirate ship your crew has to board is a dungeon.
“Wait. What does NOT qualify as a dungeon?”
The banquet hall where the PCs are having dinner with the local city council is not a dungeon if all that is occurring is an enclosed scene. But, if that banquet hall is in a manor house and during dinner the lights go out and there’s a murder, for the PCs to discover that they are locked in the manor house until the murderer is discovered (or they all die, whichever happens first), then it becomes a part of a dungeon, or a “room”.
Think of it in terms of boundaries. A location for a single scene, with really only one event occurring in it is just the setting for that scene. This event could be combat.
Example: an altar to an inscrutable entity that has been summoned forth, and the PCs must engage in combat with it and its evil cohorts. That is a single location or “room”. No exploration is going to occur. The PCs arrive there, some narrative dialogue occurs, then combat. The boundaries of that setting are limited, with it effectively being one room and one event. A dungeon is an interconnected series of such “rooms”.
Think of a dungeon like you would a flow-chart. You have Point A (point of entry: which could literally be where the PCs physically enter the dungeon, or it could be the plot-hook that initiates the chain of events) and Point Z (the ultimate objective of the dungeon). In between those, you have a variety of other points, which could indicate physical rooms or events. Some of these interim points on the flow-chart are one-way.
Example: “one-way doors” that vanish, collapse, or otherwise become incapable of usage once used. Another example is if there is a prisoner in the room with valuable information. The PCs free the prisoner, and the prisoner will tell them anything they ask before trying to exit the dungeon (better hope the way back was cleared of traps and monsters by the PCs). The PCs fail to ask the prisoner certain questions, and the prisoner leaves. Once gone, the PCs can not back-track to get that information. That event is also a “one-way door”, just as much as the passageway that collapsed or vanished behind the PCs.
Now, keep in mind that players can get very creative. Let them. Don’t stifle their creative solutions to certain situations. Maybe instead of letting the prisoner just escape out, they heal the prisoner, give them some water and rations, and then equip them with spare gear and tell them they are now part of the crew? Let them, and don’t punish them for it just because you didn’t consider the possibility and develop a reason why that won’t work. Don’t start targeting the prisoner with traps and enemies to eliminate the players’ creative solution (that doesn’t mean the prisoner should have plot armor, just don’t go out of your way to kill them off). Players, like life, will find a way. Embrace that! I guarantee that the experience will be more enjoyable for everyone involved.
Do not…I repeat…DO NOT tell the players, “no,” just because the book you are running from (or your own flow-chart) doesn’t specifically allow or disallow a certain action.
Example: The description of the room states that it is, “Carved from the very stone of the mountain. The PCs entered from a passageway from the west. There is a metal grate in the center of the floor, embedded in the stone. To the south is a stone slab door with a ringed handle in the center.” The PCs decide to see if they can remove the grate, and if the passage beneath it is large enough for the party’s gnome to slide into. The description of the room simply states that the grate is embedded in the stone, not that the grate is absolutely incapable of being removed. The problem is, the adventure source says nothing about where the grate goes. Do you simply tell the PCs, “No. You can’t remove the grate,” and force them to move on? No. Let them remove the grate. Tell them that all that is visible is rushing water flowing west at a rapid rate. Or, let them find a short-cut to skip over certain obstacles. Do not just say, “NO!”
This is not to say you should never use “no” when running a game. There are some things that are not okay, and you should drop the proverbial hammer on those behaviors. You shouldn’t do it just because the quick thinking of the players has disrupted your dungeon flow-chart. Improvise and adapt to the situation.
However, not everyone who runs a game is going to be as adept with handling player creativity. Make sure you communicate your own comfort levels with your players. If they are pushing past the accepted boundaries of the dungeon flow-chart, have an agreed upon phrase that you can use like, “That’s outside the parameters of this adventure.” It is okay to have limitations and know your own boundaries, and to share those with the players at your table. Most reasonable and decent people will understand that, and be cool with it.
And yes, this is all part of dungeon delving, because if you haven’t figured out by now, my design philosophy is holistic. No, this doesn’t mean crystals and essential oils. This means that you should have comprehension of all of the parts to gain a better understanding of the whole (hol = whole). This isn’t to say you shouldn’t use crystals and essential oils when you game. I have seen some exquisite crystal math rocks, and some essential oils have quite a pleasant aroma (just make sure no one at your table is allergic before using).
“How does the holistic approach apply to dungeons?”
Think of it this way: If you only focus on Point A and Point Z, why even have all the other points in between? You should be asking yourself quite often when developing a dungeon, “Why?” I’ve played in a lot of dungeons. I’ve run a lot of dungeons someone else created. It becomes obvious when the designer didn’t ask themselves, “Why?” You get rooms that are 20 x 20 with a huge monster, but only one small entry passage, and no obvious means for that monster to get in and out. You get entire clans of goblins surviving in a dungeon that was sealed off from the outside world for centuries. You get undead human skeletons and zombies populating a dungeon that predates humans in the setting. You get office buildings that don’t have bathrooms. No, you don’t have to be an expert in structural design, history, or ecology to design a dungeon, but you should put at least a bit of thought into how things got in the dungeon, how they have survived in the dungeon, and why they are in the dungeon now.
“Does my dungeon have to make logical sense?”
No. It only has to make narrative sense. For instance, is your dungeon some sort of quasi-dimensional chaos realm? Some dungeons are thematic and based on abstract concepts like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or Jung’s Collective Unconscious. These may exist in pocket dimensions populated by magical constructs or exist “outside” of time so that nothing in them gets thirsty or hungry or has to poop. They don’t necessarily have to follow strict rules of logic, but if they don’t, there should be indicators for your players on what has shifted. These are great for “puzzle box” dungeons, where the dungeon as a whole is an interconnected puzzle. Once again, allow your players to come up with creative solutions that may not be exactly what you have marked down. If your players are starting to show signs of frustration and annoyance, the fault is probably not their own. Creating a puzzle box that only you can solve because you did not offer your players a key to solve it is not clever, it is boorish. Because of this, you should plan on a set of additional “keys” that you can insert into any room in the event the players are about to start throwing dice at you.
“If PCs die, does that mean my dungeon is bad?”
Not necessarily. Some groups like playing difficult grinders, and will replay a dungeon over and over again with new character combinations until they succeed. This definitely falls under the principle of “know your audience”. Also, if you are designing a dungeon you intend to some day publish, let your players know that this is designed for play-test, and how they fare will determine tweaks and alterations before you decide to publish. Consent regarding the style of play is incredibly important. Take the time to sit down and talk to your players about what experience they are interested in engaging in. If they want to play dungeon grinders, send ’em into that grinder! If they don’t want to deal with constant fatal scenarios, adjust accordingly. There are ways to challenge players that do not involve the constant fear of character death. What if failure to clear the dungeon in time results in another dramatic effect, such as the PCs not getting the magical sphere of *bzzzzzt*, which is a necessary quest piece for the larger meta-plot of the campaign? Now, don’t forever deny them the magical sphere of *bzzzzzt*, but make them put some time in located the next point it will appear and then going into another dungeon to try and retrieve it.
(The magical sphere of *bzzzzzt* is just full of bees, by the way. Magical bees, really important to the meta-plot, but still, it is a sphere full of bees.)
Death should not be the only tangible result of failure. Nor should failure in one box of the dungeon mean complete failure. Also, you don’t have to just have Point Z be the only end-point. Some of my favorite video games offer alternate endings depending on whether you achieved certain objectives during the game. There’s no reason your dungeons shouldn’t have the same design concept.
Example: The dungeon ends with the party encountered the undead Lady Ormantha. You could plan for the following four optional endings: 1) The PCs attack and destroy Ormantha, ending her cursed reign of terror over the surrounding lands; 2) The PCs make a pact with Ormantha, sparing the local populace by sacrificing one of their own; 3) The PCs located the Talisman of the Emerald Pope, and using to restore Ormantha to life, ending her curse, but then she immediately dies (her soul saved); or 4) The PCs located the Tome of Unther, and use it for the Ritual of Becoming, restoring Lady Ormantha’s soul and transforming her into an angelic being dedicated to protecting the surrounding lands and its people. You could even tier these as 1 is the worst outcome (while still a success) with 4 the best outcome, and award experience/treasure/plot advancement based upon which tier they accomplish. If they come up with something super creative, like they recover the Talisman and the Tome and the party’s Theurge figures out a way to merge the magics of the two for an even more spectacular outcome, then awesome! Give them bonus beyond what you initially planned for Tier 4. Maybe they defeat but don’t destroy her, working out a pact similar to Tier 2 without sacrificing a member of the party. Go ahead and give them the same Tier 2 reward.
Remember, the players are not following a script, and they should not be punished because they do not know their lines.
Another very important piece of advice when choosing a dungeon for your players is that if the group is new to playing with one another, go simple the first few sessions. Let the players get comfortable with each other and with you. Once everyone has established a rapport, you can launch into some more challenging scenarios.
So, to summarize, a dungeon need not be an interconnected series of rooms containing monsters, traps, and treasure. A dungeon in a TTRPG is a generalized term of art to designate a flow-chart style design that ties together physical zones, events, challenges, and other story devices designated as “rooms”. An event such as banquet where conversation occurs is itself not a dungeon, but it could be a “room” within a dungeon. When building your dungeon, consider why the “rooms” are where they are, and what function they serve in the overall dungeon. The dungeon need not be purely linear progression, and may allow for reverse movement and course adjustment. Be prepared for your players to come up with solutions you had not considered, and avoid telling them, “No.” Do not run your players through a dungeon that they are not interested in or actively opposed to. Know your audience.
Most important: Have fun as a group. If it is only fun for you and not your players, you are misunderstanding the spirit of gaming. Fun comes in a lot of different flavors of dungeon. Find the dungeon flavor right for your group. (Please don’t let your PCs lick the dungeons, unless thematically appropriate.)
And to answer some questions on why I think I am experienced to share my opinions on these matters with anyone:
There is the old standard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master in a given field, although most will tell you that is patently false. I could probably spend 10,000 hours trying to master football, and would still be a miserable failure. But I can tell you I have spent well over 10,000 hours designing and running dungeons for TTRPGs. I can honestly say, I was well over 10,000 hours into this by the time I turned 25. No, I have never published. Until recently, with the advent of digital marketplaces, you had to know the right people in the right places to get a dungeon published. Because I redirected most of my energies towards my profession of choice over the last decade, this also means I haven’t been honing my craft as much in recent years.
I could not say whether or not the terminology I use is used by other designers. I’ve never really been involved in any sort of official design community. These are just the terms I use, and it is possible that they wound up in my vocabulary after reading an issue of Dragon or Dungeon magazine years ago.
Ultimately, I expect any reader to do the same thing I did: take what you like, forget the rest. My only hope is that some bit of what I’ve put here helps you design a more enjoyable dungeon for your players. I know, it isn’t a step-by-step how-to manual, and more of a philosophical treatise, but I find design manuals to be overly confining.
Anyway, enjoy your games. That’s what they are there for.