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TTRPG Dungeon Tips #001: Dungeons with a Purpose

When you're creating a dungeon for your players, it's easy to default to the same sort of idea, that there's a series underground tunnels, each square is 5 feet, 10 feet wide so players aren't in a conga line. You may stock it with the usual suspects in some of the rooms like rats, skeletons, goblins, bugbears (zzzzz), maybe even a gelatinous cube if you're feeling extra wild that day, and, of course, there's a boss at the end and some treasure along the way. You grab the graph paper, draw it out, and away you go, ready for next week's game. Maybe your throw down the dungeon tiles, draw it up on your chessex mat, or maybe just load something up on Roll20 and away you go. Done, done, and done.

It's time someone gives it to you straight. It's boring.

If you've played D&D for more than a year, you've probably seen all the monsters, you've heard all the jokes, and know all the lore there is to know. If you've ran it for more than a year, you've had the same experience, especially if you listen to CR (that goes for both the youtube guys and the so-called Challenge Ratings). We'll talk about Challenge Ratings later.

DMs and GMs, it's time to spice things up.

Today, let's talk dungeons.

A dungeon shouldn't just exist without a purpose. Before you decide that this weeks game is going to include a dungeon, take a moment and think WHY this dungeon's there. No, it's not so your players can earn XP and find items, I'm talking about its purpose in the world that you're playing in.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How old is this dungeon?

  • What purpose did it serve when it was built?

  • Why was it built and by whom?

  • Why was it put in this certain part of the world?

  • What's kept other people out of it?

  • Why was it abandoned?

  • Could it be repurposed? If so, why hasn't anyone?

The answers should be plentiful, just take your time and think it out. Take a walk if you have to and let your mind solve these riddles. Start small if you must, and its OK to be cliche when you start leveling up your games.

Starting small we can think, perhaps it used to be a jail or prison. (Who or what did they keep down here and why did they need to build something so elaborate for it or them or he or she?). Is the thing that was locked away still down here? Is it still alive or is it simply bones, or maybe those bones have been stolen or reclaimed by a benefactor or relative, or someone with an ulterior motive? Resurrecting the body of so and so or dragon X or Y with blood magic r necromancy can be a cool hook!

If it's purpose was to imprison something, were there other prisoners? Well, you're going to need jail cells in this dungeon! Think, what else is found in a prison from long ago? Keys, the skeletons of prisoners that died in their cells, lost to time and still bound to their chains? A detailed map of the infrastructure, a ledger of feeding times, not to mention other activities. A mess hall, or a cafeteria (after all, everyone has to eat!). Was there one for the guards and one for the ones locked away, or did they share? An armory would make sense, away from the cells so the prisoners couldn't get to them. Or.. maybe they eventually did and escaped! Think, think think!

Another example.

Is your dungeon at the base of a mountain? Perhaps there's some volcanic activity down in here and the halls and walkways have pools of molten magma seeping through the walls. Maybe this volcanic activity is new and thats why the dungeon was abandoned. Ah, yes, we've thought ahead here. That's a whole story right there! You've given depth to an otherwise run-of-the-mill-would-have-been dungeon.

Where molten lava lies, so should critters and monsters that actually enjoy and thrive in the heat. Be they fire elementals (beings that form from the lava itself, or otherwise), spirits that serve the old volcanic gods or those who were sacrificed to it or them, or thickly armored earthen creatures who's rock-fused natural armor gives them protection from the heat. Fire insects, fire variations on the local baddies? Why not? Think, think, think.

If you're going mountain lava dungeon, then dial it up. Make an event out of it. Make it scream FIRE DUNGEON! It should be hot, humid, maybe even require certain items for your players so they can even enter it. Are the walls stone, earth, dug out, or laid in?

A dungeon near the sea should have nautilus shells in the walls, maybe the bones fish, big and small, fossils even. It should drip and smell like a water ride at an amusement park. Pools of water should be everywhere, collected in pools and housing sea life.

The possibilities are endless. Give your dungeons a name. The Ooze Dungeon, The Sea Dungeon, The Toxic River Dungeon. Trust me, it'll help while you're creating it. Give the traps a sense and a relation to where it is and to what it was, Fire trips for the fire dungeon, water ones for the water dungeons, so on and so forth.

So, the next time you pose a dungeon to your players, give it a purpose, history, a reason, a smell, a look, and a hook and it will feel so much more real and so much more interesting.

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