Monday, January 18, 2016

Dungeon Checklist

Sometimes I write dungeons.  Today I wrote a checklist of things to put in the dungeon.  The first couple items are pretty obvious, but it's still good to enumerate their usage.

How to Use This Checklist

Read it once before you write you dungeon.  Then read it again when you're done, to make sure you got everything.

1. Something to Steal

Treasure gives players a reason to go into the dungeon in the first place.  On a metagame level, treasure is money, money is XP, and XP is tied to the idea of character advancement.  It's the prime mover of the system.

Two points.  First, remember that treasure doesn't need to be treasure.  It can be:
  • Shiny shit, such as boring ol' coins, or the jewelled brassiere of the zombie queen.
  • Knowledge, such as where to find more treasure, or information you can use to blackmail the king.  Or even a sage, who can answer a single question honestly.
  • Friendship, such as an amorous purple worm that follows you around and protects you when it's hungry and a little bored.  Occasionally, it leaves egg sacs laying around for you to fertilize (and it will get angry if you don't sit on them for at least an hour).
  • Trade Goods, like a wagon full of tea (worth 10,000gp).  When I give out large parcels of trade goods as treasure, I give half of the XP now, and the other half of the XP when it's sold off.  (I just really like the idea of a mercantile campaign.)
  • Territorial, like a tower the players can claim as their own, or an apartment in the nice party of the city (and the chances of being stabbed in your sleep are dramatically reduced).
  • Useful adventuring shit, like a magic sword, scroll of blot out the sun, or a parachute.
Second, treasure tells a story, too.  Cover your treasure in religious symbols, annoint it in trollblood.  Don't let your coins be coins!

2. Something to be Killed

This is pretty obvious.  Of course there are threatening things in the dungeon.  There has to be some challenge otherwise it isn't a dungeon.  The simplest way to do that is with things that are trying to kill you.  (Yes, you can have monsterless dungeons based on traps.  Those are cool, but that's why this checklist is written in pencil, not in stone.)  There are many ways to make combat with even basic monsters more interesting.

Also remember that dungeons tell their story through nouns.  The history of a dungeon is usually relayed through monster choices (why use orcs when you can use degenerate cannibal versions of the original dwarven inhabitants?) and descriptions of those creatures (a barnacle-covered zombie, an iron golem charred by dragonfire, the elven armor scraps that the goblins are wearing, the elven wand-rifle that one of the goblins has for some reason).

Examples: 2d6 orcs, 3d6 mudmen.

3. Something to Kill You

Dungeons are designed to be beaten.  That's why we don't fill them with inescapable obstacles (rocks fall, everyone dies) or impenetrable barriers (sorry, the whole dungeon is wrapped in an adamantine dome, you can't get in).

BUT dungeons need to feel like they were designed to be unbeatable.  It's important to feel like this isn't just a bowling alley where the DM sets up the pins for the players to knock down.  You need to have deadly elements in your deadly dungeon for it to feel deadly.  

Just follow these two important rules.  Try to follow at least one
  • Label your deadly shit as such.  A sleeping dragon.  A door barricaded from the player's side with a sign warning of deadly spiders.  These things look deadly from a distance.
  •  A chance to escape.  Maybe the dragon can't fit into the smaller tunnels around his lair.  Maybe the manticore is chained to a rock.
Both of these serve the same function: they allow the players to pick their own battles, something you can't do on a linear railroad game.  I think that's why a lot of OSR folks hate the idea of boss battles: because they're the one battle in the dungeon that is required.

Horrible monsters that are avoidable give the players agency and allows them to be architects of their own demise.

Sidenote: I think that nearly all combats should be escapable. Sometimes with a cost (dropped food, gold, maybe a dead PC or hireling). In my experience PCs will get themselves killed often enough even if the enemies never left the rooms they were in.

Also, putting "unbeatable" monsters in your dungeon also allows the dungeon to be self-scaling.  The level 1 party will just tip-toe past the dragon, while the level 6 party might consider fighting it so they steal the treasure it is sleeping on top of.  And just like that, a dungeon becomes appropriate for both level 1 parties AND level 6 parties.  (And this is another reason why I think OSR games have such a wide range of level-appropriateness--It's both easy and expected that players will flee from fights that they can't win).

4. Different Paths

Different paths allow different parties to experience the dungeon in different ways.  It's a randomizer, similar to what you'd get if you ordered the dungeon rooms according to a random number generator.  And it keeps you (the DM) from getting bored

Player agency.  Players can choose the path they're better suited for.  The party with 2 clerics can take the zombie-infested tunnel, and the party with air support can get themselves dropped into the courtyard.  It also allows dungeons to be a little bit self-adjusting, too.  Players who are more confident can challenge the front door, while lower level parties will creep around the outside.

It allows parties to walk away from rooms they don't like.  Part of the OSR philosophy (as I see it) is the ability to walk away from fights.  If a party doesn't want to fight a room with archer skeletons entombed in the walls (especially after two of them were blinded in the last room) they can retreat and find another way in.  It's an option they have.

The last reason to have multiple paths is to allow for dungeon mastery.  I don't mean DMing.  I mean that, as the players learn more about the dungeon, they become better at exploiting its geography.  They can lure the carrion crawler over the pit trap that they know is there.  They can retreat into a looped path, instead of retreating into unexplored rooms (always a dangerous tactic).

At the same time, don't throw in random paths just for the hell of it.  The more paths you put in, the less linearity there is in your dungeon.  And sometimes you want linearity, especially when it comes to teaching your players things, or giving clues.  Sometimes you want to show the players the eerily clean hallway before they bump into the gelatinous cube.  Maybe you want them to meet the zombies with hook hands before they meet the room of crawling, animated hands.

There's nothing wrong with a little linearity if you're putting it in there for a reason.  I still think that a heavily branched dungeon should be the default assumption, but linear sections of a dungeon are a venal sin, not a mortal one.

5. Someone to Talk To

People forget this one, and yet it's the one I feel strongest about.  Strong enough for caps lock.  EVERY DUNGEON NEEDS SOMEONE TO TALK TO.  It's a roleplaying game.  NPCs are the cheapest and easiest way to add depth to your dungeon.  It's easy because everyone knows how to roleplay a generic goblin prisoner and has a pretty good idea of what information/services that goblin prisoner can provide.  And it's got depth because there are so many ways that a party can use a goblin prisoner.  There's almost no bloat--you don't need to invent new mechanics, and it takes almost no space to write "There is a goblin in a cage.  His name is Zerglum and he has been imprisoned by his fellows for setting rats free."

The problem is that a lot of dungeons are treasure vaults, tombs, and abandoned mines.  The only creatures you usually encounter in those places are undead, golems, oozes, and vermin with ambiguous food chains.  None of those are really known for being chatty.  So, here are some options:
  • Rival adventuring party.
  • Goblins never need explanation.
  • Spell effect, like a chatty magic mouth spell or something.
  • Graveyard nymph.
  • Ghosts.  Make a sympathetic one.  Everyone expects them to be jerks.
  • Ghoul head, sitting on a shelf.  It can talk if you blow through its neck-hole.
  • Old man trapped in a painting.  Communicates by painting.
  • Demon trapped in a mirror.  Communicates by repeating your own phrases back to you.
  • Ancient war machine trapped by a stasis field bomb.  Seeks enemies who died thousands of years ago, will self-destruct when it learns that it lost the war.
  • Consider giving your players speak with stones or speak with lock spells.  Dungeons usually have those.
  • Demonic succubus, who has spent the last 1000 years on a bed, trapped by the silver threads woven into a circle in the bedsheet
  • Pterodactyl-riding barbarians who are looting the place
  • Time-displaced wizard, caught in a paradox while exploring the place.  Resets every 3 minutes.
6. Something to Experiment With

Aside from something that will probably kick the party's ass, I think this might be the most OSR-ish.

These are the unexplainable, the weird, and the unknown.  And I don't mean unknown like an unindentified potion is unknown.  I mean something that introduces a new wrinkle into the game.

  • A room with two doors of different sizes.  Anything that is put into the small door emerges from the large door at twice the size, and vice versa.  Anything that goes through the doors twice in the same direction (double enlarged or double shrunk) has terrible consequences.
  • A pedestal.  If anything is placed on top of it, it turns into its opposite.  (Okay, the opposite of a sword is an axe, but what is the opposite of a banana?)
  • A metal skeleton.  If a skull is placed atop it, a speak with dead spell is cast on it.
  • Wishing wells that are portals to other small ponds in the dungeon.  Where the portal goes is determined by what item you throw in the well before you jump in.  Copper coins, silver coins, gold coins, gems, and arrows all lead to different places.
  • Two doorways.  Impassable when you walk through a single one, but if two people walk through them simultaneously, they are fused together and transported to a city of similarly-fused people.
  • A machine that turns finished products into raw goods, and raw goods into ammunition.
  • A sundial that controls the sun.
  • A boat golem that flees from loud noises.  You can direct it by standing at the back of it and shouting.
  • Two holes in the wall.  If two limbs are put in the holes, they are swapped.  If only one limb is put in the hole, it is severed.  Can be used to graft new limbs onto amputees.

There's some overlap here with magic items.  There's also some overlap with non-magical stuff, too.  There's also some overlap with combat, because some combats can be puzzly, or can rely on new rules/victory conditions.

Combat, for experienced players, for the most part, is a solved problem.  Weird shit is important because they give the players an unsolved problem.

Players know how to best leverage their attacks and abilities.  Sure, you can mix it up a bit, and force them to think and use different tactics.  But by and large, they already know how to use their character to their best effect.  They've been practicing it for levels and levels, after all.

(It's important to let player practice the stuff they're good at, i.e. combat with their character, but it's also important to put throw some wrenches in there, too.)

Weird shit follows its own rules.  Suddenly, players don't know anything about how to solve this problem, and they have to figure it out anew.

Bonus points if its something that could potentially unbalance your game.  Nothing gives a player more agency than the ability to completely derail your setting.  (Not that you need to go that far.)

More bonus points if its something that will probably hurt the players at first, but can be used to their advantage once they've figured out how it works.

One last perk: it gives level 1 characters a chance to be as useful as level 10 characters.  Anyone can stick an arm into a hole in the wall, and anyone can figure out what it does.  Weird shit often poses threats and rewards that are level-agnostic.

7. Something the Players Probably Won't Find

This one might be contentious.  Why put stuff in your dungeon that your players won't find?

First, you don't have to put much in the dungeon.  Just a few words here and there to reward the players who are more thorough.  "Inside the purple worm's stomach is a bag of holding full of 1000 gallons of purple worm stomach acid."  Or "The pirate captain has a gold bar hidden in his peg leg, wrapped in felt so that it won't rattle."  It's not like you're designing multiple cool rooms that no one will ever get to enjoy.  (I mean, I do that sometimes.)

I think it's important to hide things because there is a sincere joy in exploration and testing the limits.  If all of the things in a dungeon are obvious, why even bother wondering what is at the bottom of the well?  Is there anything interesting buried underneath all of this mud?  Players who don't have the time or resources to explore a dungeon 100% (and they shouldn't) will always walk away with a feeling of enormity, that there was always more to find.

Sure, completion is a nice feeling, but so is wonderment.

I like to reward people who are good at the game.  And being good at finding things (thinking about where they might be, exploring those places despite the risk it involves) is one of the ways that a player can be good at D&D.  I've written about this before.

It should be a spectrum.  Some things (most things) should be out in the open. Some stuff should be hidden behind curtains.  And some stuff should be tucked deeply away in the dungeon's folds.

So yeah, the next time you decorate a room with a mural of a defeated king presenting tribute to his conquerer, be sure to put an actual treasure chest in the wall behind the painting of a treasure chest.  (I've run that dungeon three times and no one has ever found it.  I get a little excited every time I describe it to players.)

There's also undead skeletons entombed in the wall behind the paintings of skeletons.  No one's ever found them, either.  But some day, some party with the right alloy of greed, cleverness, and patience will find them, and that will be great.


  1. I'll second just about all your comments on OSR trends and preferences. As I like to tell my players, it's not my job to balance the encounters so they are fair for you, it's the players' job to unbalance the encounters so they are unfair for the monsters!

  2. I quite like this! Particularly your comments about making sure there's something/one to talk to and -- even more so -- that if there's deadly hell ahead, and there should be at some point, make sure your players have forewarning and/or a way out they can choose.

    (suckerpunching players is a peeve of mine, and I'm not sorry --)

  3. Your article is 100% on point...I am stealing so much of this!!!

  4. Great article! Only I'm not sure you meant to say "fertilize" the purple worm eggs. That would be a very odd, hentai-esque twist.

    1. I wasn't suggesting the party's actions, just the worm's expectations.

      An amorous worm is following them because it thinks one or all of them is its mate. I picture the worm leaving egg sacs in their path, and roaring at the party if they ignore them (and possibly attacking if they continue to shirk their husbandly duties). Sitting on disgusting bean bags for an hour every few days seems a mild price to pay for the assistance of a purple worm.

    2. Doing the wormy butt scoot across the king's carpet might not be good though...

    3. honestly if a purple worm was a person and had a chill personality I would totally date it, its fucking cool!

  5. This goes a long way to making the AD&D dungeon generator insanely useful. Awesome article!

  6. This is awesome. As a GM, I love to see how you put love (or anger, in a way) into your dungeons.
    I'd love to see a version (or suggestions) for futuristic or modern dungeons.
    I'm running a near-future game and can't see how to fit the magical itens and fantastic beings.

  7. Would you consider reading my system? I am currently developing a tabletop RPG and would love to pay for your expertise. is my email address. I would love to hear from you soon.

  8. This might just be my favorite article yet (and that's saying something)!

  9. That was inspirational. Those examples are good enough to steal! The super-hidden treasure is something I don't consider often enough.

    1. Bonus points if the whole painting on wall tells a story of king making tribute to a conqueror, but it ended up being the last spitefull attack. The tributed chests were traps which unleashed hell when opened.
      History check later confirms that there indeed is a story of 2 fallen kingdoms, one conquered and second ruined after a cursed tribute.
      Questions should arise... where is the wealth of the conquered kingdom if it was not tributed as expected?

  10. I love the article. And I agree with putting things in that players do not find. I frequently have secret areas that the players do not locate. This is kind of the point of such areas in a dungeon. Players do not always remember to search. Especially if your secret doors are in places that they do not think to look.

    I also frequently like to have rival parties in a dungeon as you mentioned. Sometimes that party is a random encounter. Sometimes it is a hostile rival party. Sometimes just strangers.

  11. In section 6: Something to Experiment With, do you have more examples of weird shit? I like the ones you listed but looking for more ideas. Thanks!

  12. Hi! Can we translate the article in German and blog it, maybe also make a fanzine article?

  13. Opposite of a banana is an anana, also known as pineapple

  14. This article will definitely affect the way I write dungeons. Thank you!

  15. Hi Arnold, just a heads up about my translation in Italian of this fantastic post of yours.
    I hope it's not a problem, it's an invaluable text for the growing OSR community :D

    It can be read here:

    and thank you!