Dungeons & Dragons Online

DM-ing 201: Building bigger/better dungeons. My experience.

Content of the article: "DM-ing 201: Building bigger/better dungeons. My experience."

I think I have gained some experience in DM-ing and I would like to share with others what I believe is a framework to build dungeons that has recently really worked out for me and my players. I have been able to build up bigger dungeons that still felt fulfilling both for my players and myself as a DM. I’m tooting my own horn here a little but even though this design isn’t revolutionary, it’s pretty cool! By the way, if Gull, Künavin, Rowan and Edgarama mean anything to you, please don’t follow any of the links.

This post is gonna be long. Here is the Tl:dr: Build dungeons in such a way that they have a story to tell and deliver what you want to your players. Build each floor purposefully with scenes rather than a strict rigid layout, ram in combat with interesting mechanics and not overwhelming your players, some moments of not much happening but exploration and lore for your players to wonder about, some RP opportunities and some one-time use items to make your players face of powerful enemies on an equal footing.

This article is designed for DMs out there who have a bit more experience than beginners. If you’re having trouble figuring out CR, gauging action economy, have trouble working out how exactly your player’s abilities can/will wreck your encounters or have trouble in general to keep combat going at a speed that you find reasonable, go ahead and read/apply this article, but you may find yourself spending a bit more time on it. There’s nothing wrong with trying things out, but your mileage may vary.

This post is about how to think about making dungeons in a relatively quick way so that they may serve a purpose in your greater story. This framework allows you to have a self contained story for each floor as well as the dungeon itself. It’s not a recipe for all dungeons and every dungeon should not be this way. The 5-room dungeon is a decent technique to create a quick dungeon/ adventures for your players when it’s just “a job” that the characters pick up. It’s even the basis for this framework.

Dungeon and floors:

The first step is to figure out what you want to get out of this dungeon and deliver it to your players. The answer to this is probably lore, a powerful magical item or a motivation to despise the big bad evil person of your campaign. Next, you need to figure out why this dungeon is where it is for your campaign, a general history of the geographical location. Is it an old tower that crumbled into the ground when some large cataclysm happened? Is the cataclysm related to the tower in some way? Once you have figured that out, you will have an idea of what kinds of environments your dungeon will be composed of and you can start separating everything into sections.

Example: I want to deliver to my players lore that was lost to history, reframe their beliefs about the gods (was touched upon in a previous session) and give them some cool magic items along the way for every party member, in a party of 4. So I imagined an inverted wizard tower (enter from the top). This wizard possesses some lost knowledge and was inspired by some celestial/primordial entity (the two aren’t distinct in my setting) to build their tower above a sacred temple where an important artifact is hidden. I have two clearly different areas: wizard tower with some lore knowledge and some cool magic items for the party, probably a final resting place for the wizard’s body and a temple holding many secrets and an artifact that could change everything.

Now you can separate each section into two or three floors depending on how long you want to spend in this dungeon. Each floor must accomplish an objective of delivery for you as a DM, this defines the “feel of each floor”.

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Example: I split each section into two parts. I have now 4 floors, two for the tower and two for the temple. I want to get a headband of intellect to one of my player character, I want to foreshadow that something is going on below and I want to show some of the hidden knowledge that this person had. I will make the first floor a place that emphasizes the mind of the wizard and how they explored the planes, a place where students of magic would come to graduate. I can deliver the headband of intellect as loot after the boss, lore through exploration and more loot as “graduation” gifts. Enemies here are planar in nature, of one kind only: Oblex and oozes it is! The next floor is more secret, more about crafting items, I want to clearly emphasize the relationship between elementals and celestials as well as get another item to another player. Enemies are animated statues, earth elementals, the challenges here are the contraptions and automated (by magic) equipment that are difficult to understand at first glance. The last challenge is probably a guardian to the temple below. I continue the same process on the next floors.

Filling up the floors:

Now that each floor has a story that binds with each other and that they have a feel and objective, it’s time to make up the rooms and fill them up with challenges. I rediscovered the 5-7 encounters a day and learned to fall in love again with CR. I build dungeons not by tile/rooms, but by connecting scenes like in a movie. This allows to give the feel that there is more in this place than what you have actually prepared and makes each scene engaging. Puzzles and trapped corridors become encounters for which I don’t prepare the solution, I just let the players use their heads or acquired resources to overcome just like a combat situation. The more they give me, the more I’m willing to try to make sense of it in-universe.

I use diagrams.net to build my dungeon floors (link to example). For each of the scenes on each floor, I make a box and in a separate document I prepare a short description (no more than 3 lines in order to keep improvisation description skills trained), what the players can glean from those places and a fun encounter for the players to fight with some mechanic that makes the fight different than what they expect. What connects rooms together are pathways of varying length depending on the situation. Every room need not be life or death, but every room should have a purpose. Here is an example of documentation I made for the top floor of my tower. This way I could build more content, always related to the floor and the feel of the place and make it seem like the dungeon is less empty.

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I tried to build this floor in such a way that the players could explore it taking different directions, gain items to help them even the odds with the boss (reduced the CR of the boss to make it more manageable, added fire vulnerability and shackled some abilities if the party befriended a dissident piece of the elder oblex) as well as opportunities to roleplay with creatures on this floor and between each other when they asked questions about the world and the implications of what they found. The encounters that are not the boss encounter roughly follow the idea of at least 3 hard encounters (meaning encounters where nobody goes down to 0 on average, but resources are used aplenty), 2 or more easy encounters (resources used, but not much HP if any lost) and 2 deadly encounters (going to 0 is likely for at least half the party and previous resources are used when they are in a pinch). Balancing where to place these encounters is crucial to building a satisfying adventuring day. CR is the best guide that you could use here to make sure that you don't overtune anything. No encounter except the deadly encounters should have a creature with a CR of 2 above the characters' level. Add smaller enemies to favor the baddies in terms of action economy to keep things interesting.

For each of these encounters, I tried to add a mechanic that made it unique. I try to add strange creatures working with each other in an unlikely duo, special abilities that are picked up from other monsters and so on. I believe it was Chris Perkins that inspired me first to do this when he talked on a podcast about a simple pixie influencing an elder dragon to do some nefarious thing.

The ticking clock for the players was external, they have x amount of long rests to take before something bad happens outside the dungeon and make their lives very difficult, but the ticking clock also worked inside where random encounters could happen based on a table that reduce in size every time it was rolled on.

I prepared 12 scenarios for things to happen during short rests, long rests or when the characters were taking a “long amount of time” to do any one task. Each time I asked a player to roll a d12, then a d11, d10 and so on and whatever the dice fell on happened as they finished their rest or activity. This helped to keep things moving and made the dungeon feel more lived in by the monsters. Not all outcomes were bad, which also alleviated some of the stress of having something poking at them constantly and not being able to recover.


For those who have read my notes for this first floor, you’ll notice that there are some tidbits of tricks that keep coming up and that I use. There are very few things set in stone in the design. I believe that often the players will inspire me to create something much more interesting than what’s in my head at that moment and that I want to be surprised by what they come up with in the situations I put them in. So I have implemented a few things: free form lore checks and lots of one-time use items.

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One time use items are great because they will only enter balance calculations during 1 fight and completely change the field, they are precious and if you telegraph to your players that you’ll keep rewarding them with those, they will be more inclined to use them. The free lore checks are great for players because they can get truthful answers from the DM about a particular piece of lore that they are interested in, if it makes sense that they would get that information from the source they’re looking into. A high insight check might get a “You can ask me 5 questions about something you believe you could glean from this NPC’s demeanor and speech. I will answer truthfully". I don’t always use it if players ask me specific questions, but when I can sense that they’re out of their depths, I’ll usually deploy it so they can find once more what they’re after.


Here are my notes for the whole dungeon except for the last floor (you’ll notice how messy things get the deeper into the dungeon we go): top floor, one floor down, two floors down.

Final words:

I think this framework of construction is useful for dungeons or any adventure that you wish to build. One could imagine using this in more open areas that your players explore. For example, a forest with animated trees and an evil druid. In order to get to the “dungeon in the tree that is in the middle of the forest”, you can make an additional “floor” that is the forest itself. The players can navigate this place freely from scene to scene, everything is purposeful and meaningful encounters. Additionally, spending a night on this floor of the dungeon is dangerous in its own right before they brave the next floor of the dungeon in the tree to confront the evil druid.

I hope you enjoyed the read.

Source: reddit.com

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