Designing Sensible Dungeons

Imagine that you are just getting home from a long trip. You want to go sit on your couch and decompress, maybe over a nice glass of wine. Unlocking the front door, you are immediately assailed by the horrendous stench of the menagerie of creatures you keep to guard your property. The pack of savage urchins still haven’t changed out the soiled rags they call beds, and the mess is obviously attracting pests. To your horror, the urchins are taking advantage of this as a new source of food.

Passing by that pageant of squalour, you continue on to the deathtrap-riddled hallway. Even though you know the steps to pass through safely, you’re encumbered by your luggage and almost slip up a step that would have seen you impaled and then incinerated. Fortunately, you recovered your balance and made your way through.

Turning the corner, you arrive at a dead end. A lilting, disembodied voice begins to speak. After a few moments, you recognize the riddle it is speaking—an older one, but you programmed them all, so you remember the answer. Except, you must have mistaken the riddle. Should have listened to it all the way through before answering. You shout a command as another death trap is about to be unleashed, and the defences go inactive. The voice reads out another riddle, this time you hold your impatience long enough to hear it out and provide the right answer. With that, the door swings aside.

The room beyond is given over to your library. It is a winding route through the stacks before you come to the doors to your own private rooms. The keys for the two doors must be turned simultaneously; a simple matter, though it means you have to set everything else down to use both hands.

At last, you arrive in your sanctum. It’s been the better part of five minutes since you got ‘home’, and where once you were just road-weary, now you’re too frustrated to relax. Not for the first time, you wonder why you designed your lair this way, and vow that the layout of your next one will make your life much more convenient.

“… a series of rooms designed to space out enemies”

Perusing a typical adventure, one is likely to find a map of some sprawling dungeon with winding corridors that looks like maybe someone took an artistic approach to designing a crossword puzzle. Such things are part of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS legacy, a holdover from randomly generated dungeons that featured a series of monsters inexplicably juxtaposed on either side of a single, unlocked door. Each time the players would clear a room and move on to the next, the DM would roll or pick a monster that would be there.

Such things, of course, make little sense in modern dungeons, which are predominantly the lairs of some dangerous foe carefully chosen ahead of time and are assumed to serve their needs. Very often designed by the current occupant or some long-dead villain who left it empty, these are meant to be their sanctum sanctorum, an impregnable fortress where a tide of enemies will break against the villain’s strongest defenders.

And yet, the stereotypical dungeon is not constructed to allow the defenders to effectively use their superior numbers, but rather as a series of rooms designed to space out enemies into reasonable encounters.

Many Dungeon Masters will think long and hard about the way an evil necromancer will have assembled their army (partly through black magic, partly through fearmongering); will have figured out how to make that army especially fearsome (creating superzombies out of the gruesome combination of many regular zombies, of course); will have given particular thought to the treasure the army will have stolen for their master, and then drawn a map like this one for the necromancer’s lair.

The dead ends around room 2 are for mimics, of course. Donjon.

What’s wrong with this map? What’s not wrong with it? Who designed this place, and for what purpose? Stone takes considerable effort to excavate, and there are unnecessary corridors everywhere here. Four of the passages are actually dead ends! And how on earth are you supposed to get anywhere quickly when you have to walk absurdly circuitous paths?

For the sake of it, let’s assume that this complex was designed this way for a reason and the necromancer is holed up here because there’s nowhere better, so he has to make due. This brings us to the second folly of typical dungeon design: enemy placement.

A normal person who has six superzombies and eighteen regular zombies (insofar as someone who controls zombies can be considered ‘normal’) would look at this dungeon and say, “If I set myself up in area 5, I can split my forces between area 1 and area 4 so that any interlopers must fight a substantial battle that they are likely to lose”. A typical D&D villain, however, will say, “I’ll put one superzombie in each of the six rooms with three regular zombies, thus evenly dividing my forces into nice encounters that will provide adequate but ultimately insufficient challenge to my enemies”.

“… defence and habitation”

A good base of operations needs security and comfort, must be designed for both defence and habitation. This means corridors, air flow, waste management, and back doors. Unfortunately, none of these seem to be primary considerations for many dungeon architects.

The consequences of poor design should be awful. Denizens of a typical dungeon, with its series of closed rooms going down deep underground, would already be at risk of suffocating from lack of air even before they get a fire going for warmth and cooking. Underground dwarven holds with their forges at the bottom of the complex would have rampant issues with lung cancer from the profusion of smoke (which rises). Diseases such as dysentery and leprosy would be rampant because of a lack of proper waste disposal. It’s no wonder that these places are so often found abandoned… they’re little more than elaborate death traps.

All this to say nothing of how inconvenient it is to have to navigate a labyrinth of obstacles and living spaces just to get to your private chambers. It’s one thing to pass through a common area where your underlings are going about their daily tasks, it’s quite another to walk through areas where they’re possibly sleeping or storing their personal affairs. And having to contend with a myriad of traps in your own home is enough to make you wonder at whether your residence really should have passed inspection.

“… multiple entrances”

In his phenomenal article series about what makes a good dungeon design, Justin Alexander identifies an important feature used by Jenell Jaquays to make dungeons less linear: multiple entrances. This technique has another, more practical benefit than just encouraging player choice: it also adds strategic value to the dungeon. It’s this exact function that is the reason why we often see them in real-world ‘dungeons’.

Large fortifications such as castles have two types of entry points. The first is the large gate where most people will enter and exit. This gate is protected by various means such as a portcullis, a drawbridge, and a gatehouse. The second is a smaller, secure exit like a postern. Especially large fortifications might have multiple such alternative ways in and out. A villain’s stronghold would almost certainly have such a measure to allow their discrete comings and goings.

Such alternative entrances may very well present a security risk, since they can be discovered by unwanted persons, but this can be mitigated with additional precautions. For example, if the crypt beneath a noble family’s mausoleum includes an antechamber with a secret route down to the catacombs, which the characters can use to bypass the estate’s primary security points, then the antechamber might have various protections. The suits of armour that decorate the corners of the room might be animated armour. The crypt itself might even be protected by a ghost who awakens to destroy intruders. Such precautions mean that the alternative entrance needn’t be the easier path.

Of course, this section wouldn’t be complete without mention of the most efficient back door, the favoured trick of wizards with cash to burn: the teleportation circle. As one might expect of anything that costs at least 18,250 gp and takes one year to install, this single feature of a stronghold is enough to considerably improve its strategic potential. As long as its sigil sequence and location is kept secret—not too difficult using strategic division of labour and counter-surveillance measures such as Mordenkainen’s private sanctum—the wizard can be assured of their security. But on the off-chance that it is learned, it would provide the characters with an advantage well worth whatever extra effort they put in to obtaining that information.

“… dungeon ecology”

Another important consideration that a dungeon architect should consider is the logistics of living in such a place. Where is food kept? Where does it come from? What do you do with it once you’ve turned it into waste?

There is a reason that there are no great subterranean nations on Earth: nothing grows where there is no sunlight. It’s a fundamental law of the universe: energy cannot be created or destroyed. Plants take in energy from the Sun and use it to drive photosynthesis, which allows them to grow. Then something on the lower end of the food chain eats a plant and gets energy to continue to drive its metabolic functions. Or it gets eaten by something else, to the same effect. Unless you have another way for things in the dungeon to eat, they need to go outside.

Likewise, waste needs to go somewhere. The most efficient way to do this is to use it as fertilizer, and the fastest way to do this is to dump it into some moving body of water like an underground stream. If your dungeon has no place to grow things and no source of water, you need to think of another way to get the waste out. Perhaps an otyugh pit.

Putting It All Together

In spite of the days of randomly generated dungeons laying squarely in the past, a great many adventures follow a perplexing design that would frustrate everyday living and ultimately serves to simply divide up a large, deadly encounter into smaller, more manageable pieces. Considerations of sanitation, navigation, and security are foiled by ill-advised planning, ultimately to the detriment of how the dungeon’s master and architects are portrayed. It is, after all, tough to take seriously a villain who has to trudge through a filthy kobold warren to get to their private retreat.

While much has been written about how to design dungeons that give players choice and offer new challenges, it is important to remember that you want to keep your players immersed. With some thought given to dungeon ecology and defensive strategy, you can be sure to make dungeons that your players will remember.

Feature Image Credit: “Underworld” by René Aigner


Taylor “Ipsimus Arcanus” Reisdorf is the self-styled archmage at Dungeon Master’s Workshop, with weekly publications right here every week. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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