20 Architectural Features for Memorable Dungeons

King's Quest 6 Labyrinth Copy ProtectionThere’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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.

I Want to Write About Board Games.

I enjoy playing board games. One of these days, I’d like to make one, and possibly even publish it. I’ve tried to do so a few times now, but every attempt has fallen apart pretty early in the process. I have plenty of ideas, but I don’t have the skills to turn those ideas into something fun to play. I don’t even really have a good idea of what those skills are, or how to develop them.

I’ve long thought that part of the reason for this is that I don’t spend time thinking about board games the way I think about RPGs. I’ve spent the last 7 years of my life writing this blog; using it to tinker with D&D, and to build an understanding of RPG design. Before the blog, I wrote and ran adventures for my friends, made up new rules, new classes, and even attempted a couple entirely new games. With board games, by contrast, I just…play them.

That’s why, every few years, a post about board games sneaks its way onto this site. Those are my attempts to use the blog as a way of learning about board games. But, it’s a tricky thing. My bread and butter is writing about tweaks and extra content for D&D. That’s easy to do, because everybody who reads this blog either plays the same game I do, or they play a game similar enough that whatever I write could be easily converted.

If I do the same sort of tinkering with a board game, how interesting will that be to someone who hasn’t played that game? I could easily write some new races for Smallworld, or some new scenarios for Damage Report, but if you’re not familiar with the game I’m writing about, those posts will just be dead air to you.

That leads me to try writing about the games in a more generally accessible sense, avoiding the technical gobldygook that would only be interesting to someone who had played it. Realistically, that means I just end up writing reviews.

I don’t want to write reviews. They’re not interesting, they’re explicitly against the rules I’ve set for myself as a writer, and they don’t help me accomplish my goal. I want to learn how to make board games by tinkering with existing ones. Reviews don’t accomplish that.

I’d sincerely be curious to hear what other people think about this. On the one hand, part of me thinks “Fuck it! It’s my blog, it should serve whatever function is most valuable to me!” On the other hand, though, I put immense value in the readership I’ve built here. If posts where I tinker with board games would drive some portion of that readership away–(which would be totally fair)–I don’t think I want to do that. Perhaps the answer is a kind of reverse Joesky Tax. If I want to write some mini supplement for a board game, I first have to write a little review of the game to give context to people who haven’t played it.

Also, holy shit! This started as the opening to another post, but it has kade turned into a whole huge…thing all its own. I suppose I’ve been bottling up these thoughts of awhile. Now that I’ve put them into words, I feel obligated to share these thoughts, but this is too bloated to serve as an introduction to another post, and too skimpy to really stand on its own.

How about a practical experiment with that reverse Joesky Tax idea? Lets talk about Kingdom Builder!

Kingdom builder is one of my favorite board games. The base gameplay is very simple: you’ve got a hex map with various terrains on it. Every turn, you draw a card which specifies one of the types of terrain. You then place 3 settlements on that terrain type, trying to maximize your points within whatever limitations you’re dealing with.

That simplicity makes it easy to pull out and play, even if you have to teach new players, or if it’s been awhile since you played it yourself. But it’s not so simple that it’s ever boring. Indeed, I often have to study the board carefully for a good few minutes before I know where to place my pieces.

My favorite thing about the game is that it is incredibly modular. Everything can be swapped in and out with different pieces to change up the experience. The board is made up of 4 hex maps, placed next to each other in any arrangement you like. My set (The “big box,” which contains the base game and 3 expansions) has a total of 16 boards. Considering all the ways they could be arranged and flipped, you’ve got more possible layouts than I know how to calculate. And each board allows players to earn different special abilities, so that your moveset will change depending on how you set up the game.

Best of all is the game’s deck of 13 “Kingdom Builder” cards, which each have a different scoring mechanism on them. At the start of each game, the players draw 3 of these, which determine what their goals will be for that playthrough. So every time you play, you have to adapt to a new set of goals, finding synergies between them on-the-fly.

Given the modular nature of the game, it seems like a perfect place for me to start my tinkering.

Alternate Rules

Water Bridges
Rules as Written: In some places, the art depicts bridges crossing over water hexes. These are never mentioned in the rules, so they seem to have no purpose aside from being decorative.

House Rule: Any hex which shares a side with a water bridge hex may be considered adjacent to any other hex the water bridge shares a side with. This works both for settlement placement, and for scoring.

If the rule is in play, using the water bridges is an option for players. They may choose to exercise it or not on any given turn. This rule does not extend to bridges over canyons, since it is possible to build settlements there.

Random Locations
Rules as Written: Each board has two identical location icons on it. During setup, four tokens matching the location are placed on the board, divided betwixt the two spaces. Players who build settlements adjacent to a location may take the token, granting them the corresponding special ability on subsequent turns.

House Rule: During set up, all location tiles the players wish to use should be set aside in a bowl, or small bag.

The first two players to build settlements adjacent to any location hex may draw a random token from this supply, gaining its ability on their subsequent turn as normal. If a duplicate ability is drawn, the player may replace it and draw again.

Kingdom Builder Cards

Fortified – Builds settlements around location, castle, or nomad spaces. At the end of the game, players earn 6 gold for any such space which only they are adjacent to.

Highly Specialized – At the end of the game, each player should determine which of the 5 terrain types (Grass, Forest, Canyon, Desert, and Flower Fields) they have the fewest settlements placed in.

Start with 20 gold, and subtract 1 for each settlement on that terrain type the player has. The remainder is added to the player’s final score.

Wide Ranging – Each contiguous set of hexes which share an identical terrain type is counted as a single biome. This includes cross-quadrant adjacent hexes.

At the end of the game, players earn 2 gold for each biome they have a settlement in.

Guardians of the Land- At the start of play, each player draws a terrain card, and places it face-up in front of them for all to see. At the end of the game, they will receive 1 gold for each settlement that is adjacent to, but not on that terrain type.

Incomplete Thoughts

Part of the difficulty with modifying board games is making a physical artifact that is suitable to play with, This is particularly important for any component that needs to be part of a random choice, but even ignoring that, the physical artifact plays a substantial role in making a board game engaging and fun.

On the back of each of the 16 game boards, there is a scoring track printed. This is very nice, but the game hardly needs 16 different scoring tracks. It might be possible to use Hex Kit to make a board with a unique layout, print it out, and glue it over the top of some of the scoring tracks, making the boards double sided.

They’re slightly larger than an 8.5 by 11″ printer sheet, but using multiple sheets it could be possible to make a reasonably attractive play surface.

On a Red World Alone: Active & Reactive Worlds, and Keeping a Mature Campaign Alive

This bonus post is coming to you courtesy of my Patrons! If you’d like to join them in supporting quality games content like this, I’d really appreciate it! Even $1 helps me to build a more stable, sustainable patreon campaign.

Around the time the first year of ORWA was wrapping up, I wrote a bunch of tools for myself. Stuff that would help me run the game more easily, like tables of encounters, tables of locations locations, a timeline of big events, etc. By then the tone and content of the campaign were firmly established in my mind. Enough so that by using these tools, I’ve been able to run the game for a little over a year with remarkably little week-to-week prep work. A map here, an encounter there, simple stuff.

Now the game is over two years old. It doesn’t seem set to end anytime soon, but it has started to feel a bit stale. It’s time to evaluate, update, and rewrite my tools. One of my goals in this process is to make the world feel more active, rather than reactive.

At low levels, it’s easy to have an active world. The players are weak and poor, the world is dangerous, and they’ve got to do whatever they can to get by. That experience of being the underdog is a big part of why low levels are so popular, and why so many campaigns start to falter once the player characters are more well established.

When the party reaches mid-levels, there is novelty in being the ones directing the action. They’ve been living in the shadow of big scary monsters for so long, it’s edifying to be a bit of a monster themselves. Plus, you can never be so high level that a savvy referee can’t scare you.

But as the players reach higher levels, the world gets less and less scary, and the novelty of being scary themselves starts to wear off. If a level 15 characters wants to do something, there’s not much that can stop them. The world bends to their will and, as a consequence, the world reacts to the players, rather than the players reacting to the world.

Part of the solution is a shallower power scale, which is what I’m already doing with Fuck the King of Space. But it’s too late to change ORWA in such a fundamental way, even if I wanted to.

Another part of the solution is the “always a bigger fish” school of thought. Your party may be level 15, but the level 30 wizard who lives up on the hill is not impressed. This is a valid tactic, and I employ it myself, but alone it’s insufficient. This isn’t just about creating a challenge for the players. That’s easy. This is about making the world feel alive, the way it did when any mook the party met on the street could potentially be a real danger to them.

And to be clear, this isn’t about fixing something that is broken, it’s about adapting to an altered circumstance. There’s a lot of potential fun in having the players be hyper-capable relative to the rest of the world, and they’ve earned the chance to explore that. We just need to find some new ways for the world to push back. Before each new adventure, roll a d6 on the table below, and use the result to develop a suitable event. Once you’ve determined your event you should also deduce some reasonable consequence that might be avoided by player intervention.

Exactly what the consequence will be should usually follow pretty obviously from the details of the event. For example, if a PC’s favorite hireling has been kidnapped, failing to rescue said hireling will result in them being hurt or killed. The important thing is that the consequence exists, and will definitely occur without player intervention.

Players are free to attempt to resolve, or to ignore these events as they see fit. Many will not be quite so pressing as a kidnapped hireling. Likewise, events will vary in terms of the time investment they require to resolve. Some may be sessions-long adventures, while others might be small detours that only take part of a single session, and still others may require no time at all. Perhaps the players can resolve some events merely by throwing part of their vast fortunes at it.

In a way, it doesn’t matter how much of an impact the events have on gameplay. The important thing is that they percieve the world as being less passive, less predictable, less under their control.

Roll 1d6

1. An Agent Becomes Active

I’ve discussed before how I record interesting NPCs my players meet onto a table; and that anytime they roll a 7 while determining the result of an encounter, they bump in to one of these “Recurring Characters.” It’s one of my better ideas. But, after playing with it for 18 months, I’ve got too many characters, and not enough 7s to go around.

From here on, recurring characters will be divided into two lists. The first, “Encounter Characters” will be treated the same as they always have been. When the players roll a 7, I’ll randomly determine one of these for them to bump into while out and about in the world.

More ambitious characters, on the other hand, will be added to the list of Agents. These are the NPCs with distinct long-term goals. People who want to take vengeance on the party, or fellow adventurers who view the party as friends. In other words: people who might actively seek the party out at some point in the future.

Anytime this result is rolled, the referee should randomly select one of the game’s active Agents. The time has come for the PCs to become relevant in that agent’s plans.

2. A Questgiver has Work for the PCs

Anyone can offer the players a quest. In most games, though, there are one or two NPCs who make a regular habit of it. It’s all-around helpful for everyone when the players attach themselves to someone who can reliably give them paying work. It gives the referee a simple way of introducing adventures, and it gives the party a simple way of getting paid.

As the game develops, questgivers usually become less relevant. But it never hurts to keep them around, so they can toss a little straightforward adventuring in the player’s direction now and again.

If your players are so inclined, this result could also include petitioners. People who have heard of the party’s mighty deeds, and have come to plead for aid.

3. Conspiracy Event

Very recently, I wrote about how every game I run has conspiracies going on in the background. Secret goals pursued by hidden persons, which the players may or may not uncover before the conspiracy reaches its ultimate culmination.

When this is rolled, the referee should randomly determine one of game’s conspiracies (assuming there are more than one). Something happens that is relevant both to it, and to the players. Perhaps the plot takes a big step forward, with some public consequence that seems simple at first, but might reveal more upon careful investigation. Alternately, some small corner of the conspiracy could be uncovered, becoming public knowledge.

It is less important for these to have a direct consequence, since they are building towards a large consequence later down the line.

4. Something Happens to a Player’s Resources

Randomly determine a player. No doubt, that player has accrued some resources over time: they have a hireling, a personal citadel, a magic laboratory, a vault of treasures, and a sterling reputation.

When this is rolled, the player’s friends are assaulted, their possessions burgled, their fortresses attacked, or their good names slandered. Some resource of theirs is diminished.

Be very cautious in how this particular result is applied. It is not interesting for players to describe in detail the many security precautions they take to avoid being robbed. It is best, I think, to stick to attacking resources which might reasonably be outside the player’s ability to control.

“All your gold is stolen from your private vault!” is going to cause a lot of frustration, and probably lead the players to bore you with endless descriptions of the many traps and spells they use to protect their coin.

“One of your servants was mugged, and the entire month’s food budget stolen!” is a much more reasonable option.


5. Something Happens with a Player’s Goals

Randomly determine a player. Most likely, that player has expressed some kind of personal goal they want their character to pursue. A religion they want to discredit, a territory they want to establish, a device they want to build, etc.

Pick one thing that you know the player wants, then flip a coin. There is a 50/50 chance that this event is a setback, or an opportunity.

Setbacks are a threat to the player’s ability to accomplish their goal. If they want to discredit a religion, perhaps a miracle occurs which draws in hordes of new converts. If they want to establish a territory, perhaps the land they were looking at is seized by someone else. If they want to build a device, perhaps the government bans such devices.

Opportunities  are a chance for the player to advance their goal more rapidly than they would normally be able. Using the same examples as above, this might be a religious sex scandal, a group of settlers asking the PC to help them find a new home, or some useful materials falling off the back of a truck.

6. World Event

World events are not directly related the the players. However, their results have enough impact on the environment that the players should be interested none the less. When a world event occurs, roll on the following table:

  1. A natural disaster strikes. Randomly determine, or choose a disaster as appropriate: Fire, Earthquake, Tornado, Flood, Landslide, Sinkhole, Volcano, Blizzard, Tsunami, Hurricane, Meteor.
  2. A famine or drought begins. Food becomes very scarce, and people begin to starve. Each haven turn, roll a d6. The condition persists until a 1 is rolled.
  3. A plague breaks out, the particulars of which are left to the referee. Each haven turn, roll a d6. The condition persists until a 1 is rolled.
  4. A major figure in the Dome, such as a faction leader, is assassinated.
  5. War breaks out between a faction, and one of its neighbors. Each month until an alleviation is rolled, both sides roll a d6. Whichever side rolls higher took some of their neighbor’s territory, commensurate with the difference in the size of the rolls. (So if a 1 and a 6 are rolled, the gains would be large. If a 1 and a 2 are rolled, the gains would be small).
  6. An insurrection erupts, making a territory unstable, and threatening to overthrow the existing power structure. Each haven turn, roll a d6. The condition persists until a 1 is rolled. If it is not rolled within 7 months, the insurrection will be successful.
  7. Two factions announce an alliance with one another.
  8. News of a major scandal breaks.
  9. A major religious event occurs for a randomly determined religion.
  10. A new faction emerges, and carves out a small space for itself on the map. It may be a group the players have interacted with before, something entirely new, or even something which has technically existed for awhile but which was secret up until now.
  11. A major discovery is made, and becomes widely known: perhaps a new technology is developed, perhaps a new race is encountered.
  12. A prophecy begins making its way around around. Nobody is quite sure how to interpret it, but everyone is certain that it’s important.

The Haven Turn

You may have noticed that there’s a lot of overlap between the system outlined above, and Haven Turn complications. Most notably, the list of World Events are literally copy/pasted from that post, and edited to reflect some differences in the rules.

Complications have become my favorite part of the game, and I want to bring them more to the fore. In my game, this system will replace the standard Haven Turn encounter check. But even if you don’t use the Haven Turn system, I think this method could be helpful to others running high level games.

Fuck the King of Space: Player’s Guide

Fuck the King of SpaceHave I ever mentioned that I wrote a miniature RPG book to help me run On a Red World Alone? It’s not the prettiest thing in the world, but it’s a good 25 pages of setting information and rules that I’ve slowly patched together over the two years that I’ve been running the campaign. I’ve kept it private, because it was never meant to be anything other than a personal reference document. Who would be interested in that?

Well, based on the number of people who read ORWA’s play reports, far more people are interested than I might have suspected. And now that I’m starting up a new campaign, it seems like a good time to also start being more open about some of this behind-the-scenes stuff.

So, if you’re interested, here is the 21 page player’s guide for Fuck the King of Space. I’m taking this new campaign as an opportunity to implement a lot of shit I’ve been thinking about, much of which I’ve talked about on the blog before. The document is less interesting for its novelty than it is for taking a lot of my ideas, and putting them together into a (hopefully) coherent whole. Though, there is some new stuff in there, and almost all of the old stuff has been streamlined or revised.

There’s also a lot missing, and that’s another reason I never shared the ORWA Player’s Guide. These are living documents, updated and changed as the game evolves. If this sparks any interest at all, I’ll be sure to keep the blog updated with newer versions as I write them. (Though, future updates will be announced as bonus posts, instead of serving as the main weekly post.)


Fuck The King of Space Player’s Guide v0.1


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