There’s more to crafting a memorable dungeon than the room descriptions. To be really great, it should be an interesting space to move through on its own merits. The way the rooms connect to one another, and to the outside world, is a fundamental part of any dungeon’s character, which I have too often ignored in the past.
I’m no Dyson Logos or Stonewerks. My maps are best described as “serviceable.” And while I doubt I’ll ever share their artistic acumen, I’m trying to do better for the sake of of giving my (amazing) room keys nicer homes to live in. To that end, I’ve set myself the goal of having 3 architecturally interesting elements in every dungeon I put together. Things that give the dungeon space an inherent complexity for the players to struggle with, or manipulate.
It is essential to note, that complex room shapes are not interesting dungeon design. They are a lazy way to make a map look interesting, without actually being interesting. Unless the shape of the room has some particular impact on play, more-or-less squarish spaces are all you need.
- The entrance to the dungeon is in the center, with rooms radiating out around it. Rooms might interconnect freely, or form distinct “wings,” with only occasional connections between them. The player’s options are maximized from the start, and if they are stymied in one direction, they can easily try another.
- The entrance is perilous, preventing quick egress. Perhaps getting in and out requires climbing 100′ of rope, or slowly wiggling your way through a narrow crevice in the wall. The players are thus limited in what they can bring in or out, and will not be able to flee to the safety of the outside world if they are being pursued.
- The main flow of the rooms form a ‘figure 8’ pattern; meeting in the center, and forming two distinct loops. This is a nice simple way of making the player’s path through the dungeon nonlinear, without making the rooms overly interconnected. Each loop, of course, could and should have little offshoots.
- A river of water, lava, or just about anything else flows through the dungeon, intersecting with multiple rooms. Not only does it serve as a point of reference, and as a way to make the individual rooms it passes through more interesting; it could also be an alternate way of moving through the dungeon.
- A space from which another space is visible, but not obviously accessible. When keying, this latter space would have some interesting feature the players would want to interact with, but be barred from doing so until later. This could be accomplished with bars, with a sharp change in elevation, through unbreakable windows, walls of force, large uncrossable lava pits, etc.
- Connections which are spatially impossible. Doors that lead to the other side of the map, or hallways that loop back on themselves without ever turning. This need not be presented as a “gotcha,” where the players explore for a long time before realizing what is happening. Reference points set early in the dungeon could clue them in very quickly, and give them an opportunity to use the dungeon’s geometry to their own advantage.
- A room which vertically intersects multiple dungeon levels. Perhaps with bridges spanning back and forth across it, allowing players to reach other parts of the dungeon by finding some way to get up to a higher bridge, or down to a lower one. Or perhaps the room is filled with water, and players have to swim through it. Or any number of other possibilities.
- Areas on one level, which only connect to one another through a different level. So, for example, the first floor might have 10 rooms, but only 5 are immediately accessible. To reach the other 5, you’ve got to go up to the 2nd floor, adventure through those rooms, and discover stairs back down to the other half of the first floor. Vertical movement is often unexplored in dungeons. Usually, there’s only a single stairway between one floor and the next. Rather than the players making interesting decisions about their movement in vertical space, this method basically creates multiple dungeons strung together end-to-end.
- Combining natural and crafted spaces. This is already done with a lot of maps, where the dungeon is built on top of caverns. This particular arrangement, though, has become a little cliche. It’s more interesting to have a walled garden, open to the sky; or have a crafted corridor that opens out into a natural cave, where the players can choose between a few natural and crafted exits.
- Secret doors which do not lead to secret areas, but rather, lead to other areas of the dungeon that could be easily accessed conventionally. This was actually much more common with dungeon cartography in the ’70s and ’80s, but is not as common anymore. Which is a shame! Yes, rewarding players with secret treasure is good, but it’s also good to reward them with secret connections they can use to move about the dungeon more sneakily.
- The dungeon lacks any foundation. Perhaps it is flying, or suspended over a chasm by chains, or floating on a fantastically buoyant sea. The floor of the various dungeon spaces have frequent openings, which serve as hazards for navigation, a means to dispose of any foes the party encounters, and perhaps even as a secondary form of navigation if the party is bold enough to try and cling to the underside of the dungeon.
- The dungeon is moving. Getting in is a challenge, as you either need to find some way to catch up to it, or you need to predict its route and jump on with perfect timing. And, once it’s time to leave, you have no idea where you’ll be. Such a dungeon could take the form of a castle-on-wheels, a giant walking robot, a structure carried on the back of a titanic beast, or carried in the talons of a massive ancient bird.
- That a dungeon should have multiple and varied entrances is advice I remember hearing years ago. But it’s still good advice, and I so rarely see it followed. Multiple ways in and out of a dungeon offers a lot of interesting gameplay. For example, if multiple entrances are known, players can investigate both, and make a choice about which they want to explore further. If the extra entrances are hidden, players may discover them from the inside, creating a natural sort of “save point,” now that they can return to town, and re-enter the dungeon further along than they started. Dungeons may also exit out into new areas: vast caverns beneath the earth, mysterious forest groves, surface temples, or deserted islands.
- The players cannot get out the same way they got in. Perhaps the door seals behind them, or perhaps the entrance to the dungeon is a trap door down a slippery shaft. The crawl takes on a sense of urgency when it’s no longer possible to leave at your own choosing; and resources normally taken for granted–food, water, light–are transformed into timers, counting down how long the players have until their work becomes exponentially more difficult.
- The dungeon has some internal means of rapid conveyance. Perhaps there is a train, or a set of color-coded teleportation pads in the first room, or a pipe which–when touched–causes a person to merge with it and flow forward until they will themselves to separate.
- The rooms, when mapped together, form some kind of shape. This shape is a clue to solving one of the dungeon’s mysteries. As a simple example, perhaps there is a set of buttons in the shape of a circle, square, and triangle. Pressing the right one opens the door to the treasure room, pressing the wrong one kills you. The correct one is the triangle, which the players can guess based on the fact that the dungeon is a triangle.
- The dungeon has an open-air layout, with sections of it being completely physically separated from one another, despite having internal continuity. Players can enter any room of the dungeon they wish, but some rooms can’t be fully realized until other rooms are investigated.
- A specific calamity which has changed the dungeon’s layout. Many dungeons have bits of crumbled wall creating openings here, and collapsed corridors creating walls there. More interesting, I think, is to determine an event which caused structural damage to the dungeon, and allow that event to alter the whole layout, rather than just a corridor or two.
- Puzzlebox dungeons, with big moving parts, where whole wings are locked off until some challenge is resolved. Something like a big cog or water wheel, which the players must discover how to turn; or a button they must weigh down. These, in turn, cause a statue’s mouth to open, and more rooms to become accessible. This is the sort of thing commonly found in video games, which would be all the more interesting for being presented in a situation where the players have real agency.
- A dungeon which serves as the habitat for large groups of some benign creature. Preferably, one with some notable effect that will have an impact on how the players navigate. Perhaps the creatures can be ridden, or perhaps they screech loudly when they see light, or maybe they create an anti-magic field around themselves, or they cause magic to be amplified, or they produce weird results when eaten.