Building a Dungeon in Classic D&D

This is the last part of my ongoing series dissecting early Dungeons & Dragons, and building the retroclone Dungeon Raiders out of it.

'Escape' by shanegorski on Flickr
'Escape' by shanegorski on Flickr

For simplicity’s sake, what follows is the entire article that I wrote in Dungeon Raiders about dungeon design.

Here’s the secret to creating an exciting, dangerous dungeon:

A dungeon is a series of scenes. Each scene is a major event–a fight or conflict–which occurs within a limited geographic area that I call a site. A few common site types are listed below.

A lair is one creature’s base. This creature may, of course, have minions. Examples of lair-based creatures include dragons, liches, and mad wizards.

Most lairs are single rooms. Even complex lairs made up of several areas should point towards an epicenter.

A warren is a set of rooms that make up the home for one clan or band of creatures. Goblins and kobolds, for example, often live in a series of interconnected passages and rooms that make up a warren.

Plus, some clans will be led by a chief who maintains a lair somewhere within the warren.

Warrens should be absolutely thick with one type of creature, and nearby sites should contain either a few examples of this creature, or at least evidence of their nearby habitation.

A trap (in these terms) refers to a room or small complex specifically designed to kill or ward off intruders, typically with mechanical or otherwise automatic guardians.

Traps can be mazes of twisty little passages (all alike), empty rooms, and switchbacks. They can also be individual rooms rigged with explosives, swinging blades, trap doors, and the like. Traps can also include all of these.

Monsters are rarely found in trap sites, which is a clue for adventurers to the site’s type.

A crypt contains a very powerful yet abandoned item (or set of items). They are distinct from lairs in that the central item is not a creature, though the “item” could be a dormant creature like a lich or golem.

Crypts are nearly always a single room. They can sometimes be combined with a lair if a powerful creature is attempting to use the powerful item abandoned in the room.

While the crypt itself is a single room, it most benefits from one or two introductory rooms that serve as warnings or clues about the upcoming crypt.

The last major site is the old kitchen, a room once used for a specific purpose, but now taken over for another use. Monster encounters frequently occur in once-mundane areas, in which monster and adventurer just happen to meet.

When designing your dungeon, start with the sites that you want to feature. Draw those on a piece of paper, simply as circles connected by lines. Then, flesh out each site. How big is it? How many rooms does it include? Where are the exits? What monsters should be included?

Then merge your sites, connecting them with passages or nestling them up against each other. Voila! You have a dungeon.

If the PCs dive into a dungeon that you haven’t fully fleshed out, no worries! Just think in terms of sites, and make it up as you go along.

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