If your gaming group is anything like mine, you’ll someday find yourself sitting around a table not wanting to play your normal campaign due to a severe lack of VIP’s, that is to say, Very Important Players. Now, if you’re anything like my gaming group you will refuse to quit! Within minutes, someone has pulled up the Character Builder and is pumping out “Quick Characters” and printing with the vigor of a dozen bloodied Dragonborn. Well, what happens when you have 5 new characters and no place to go? While there are many pre-made dungeons available in all kinds of different forms, sometimes you’d rather have a little taste of the homebrew. That’s where the 20-Minute Dungeon Design comes in. Follow these easy steps to an episodic afternoon of delightful dungeon delving!
First off, there are some decisions to make before crafting your crawl. Ask yourself the following questions before you continue:
1. What is the PC’s objective?
The players are going to this dungeon for a reason. Since they just made a bunch of random characters and threw them together in a cauldron, you probably don’t need to wrack yourself too hard on this one. Pick something fairly general, as flexibility is key. If you find yourself having a hard time with this, just answer: Dragon. After all, everyone loves to slay a random dragon now and again.
2. What does the dungeon look like?
You’ve picked an objective, now think about where this objective is. If your objective is a hoard of Dwarven treasures, then you’re likely going to be imagining a mine or an underground fortress. If your objective is to slay a dragon, then you’re obviously going to be imaging a dragon lair. However, this is the point where you want to get a good idea of what the inside of this layer looks like. Is it rough hewn walls? Finished stone interior? A collection of thatched huts? The more detail you can throw together the better.
3. Who lives in this dungeon?
You know what the players are after, you know what the place looks like, now try to think of who might live there. In some cases, there won’t be a single living creature, but I would avoid that until you have a good grasp on dungeon building. Consider the kind of creatures that live in the environment, and decide if they make good minions to any kind of antagonist you might have in mind. There won’t always be an end boss of sorts, but there will likely be a leader type if humanoids are involved.
Once you’ve made these initial decisions, you should start crafting your dungeon. My preferred style is drawing on lightly inked graph paper so that pencil can show up easily without having to draw the lines more than once. I also find that my maps are less like maps and more like sketches. They’re also subject to change at any point during the adventure, so it’s really more of a rough draft than anything.
Quickly sketch what you think the entrance to this dungeon would look like from a top-down view. In a 20-minute dungeon, I wouldn’t recommend having more than two entrances. If it makes sense to put some guards at this entrance, pick a couple soldier monsters that might belong there, and throw some minions and maybe an artillery or a controller in there as support. I recommend using something between level -1 and level +1 for the experience goal. This will give the players the feeling that they’ve earned entrance into this dungeon, but hopefully will not be tough enough to encourage them to instantly run off and go rest.
Once you have the entrance sketched out and populated with guards, lightly draw a path from the beginning to the end. Be sure to drop some zigs and a few zags for effect. Sketch out the final chamber, and stick an antagonist or generic leader in there for dramatic effect. Remember, D&D doesn’t require originality to be fun, so don’t be afraid to embelish on the dramatic final encounter. However, depending on how many encounters you plan on throwing at the players, you may want to consider using just a normal level encounter for this one, as the players might be pretty well drained by the time they get here.
After you plot the final chamber, commence elaboration! Take your thoroughly zigged and zagged path, and add some things of interest to the middle of it. There might be a T intersection with one path leading to a big room with treasure or traps. You might also consider putting an armory in there, and plot a group of workers and warriors to defend the invaluable weapons and armor.
Once you’ve added some places of interest to your dungeon, make sure that there’s a place for the denizens to live. When the players burst in on a room full of bunks, and they have a waves of angry Deurgar falling out of their beds and grabbing for axes, they’re going to feel like they’ve found a golden opportunity to engage in some carnage. This is a great room to fill with minions, but be sure to put a leaderly type or two in there as the guys sleeping in the beds might be workers, while only a few in the room are actual fighters.
Your dungeon is just about ready. The next step is to drop some doors and lighting in there. If you don’t think doors are appropriate, it’s also fun to put some other kinds of obstacles in there. This might be a collapsed passageway, or some overgrown vegetation. You also don’t need to include lighting of any sort if you don’t want, but it’s usually a little more engaging for the players to be able to see light coming from around the next bend, signaling an encounter or something of interest at the least.
You now have all of the major components. Look your dungeon over, and be sure you haven’t gone too crazy on the difficulty of the encounters. As a good rule of thumb, your dungeon should not be giving the players more than 40% or 2/5ths of the total experience needed to gain a level.
This strategy is best used when creating a dungeon that is expected to take 4-6 hours to complete. Next time, I’ll be exploring some techniques on making a similar dungeon that’s geared for smaller, faster encounters, but has the same feel of a normal dungeon with only half the expected completion time.