Last week, I talked about the importance of meaningful choices in dungeon design. This week, I’m going to talk about some more specific techniques I like to use in dungeon design.
Often, when GMs design dungeons, they think of them as a series of connected rooms. Some rooms have combat encounters, others have traps, and some rooms are simply empty. This technique is simple and intuitive, but ultimately can be unsatisfying. A room-oriented dungeon raises all sorts of problems. Your players may wonder why the enemies they’re fighting let them clear the dungeon room by room instead of organizing a defense. Normal, realistic rooms are often cramped and small when mapped on a 5-foot grid. Empty rooms can feel fairly pointless, and may confuse players and waste their time when they assume something that has been described must be important.
A way to deal with this is to stop thinking of dungeons as rooms and begin thinking of them as sections. A section is a region of the dungeon that is conceptually and geographically separated from the rest of the dungeon. It can have any number of rooms in it. When you start thinking in sections, many of the problems above work themselves out. A section will have several realistically sized rooms, meaning that when you map it, there will be plenty of space for people to move around, not to mention varied enough terrain to make it interesting. If you consider the encounter as taking place over a whole section, you can spread an encounter’s worth of enemies realistically through the whole section and have them react to the PCs’ presence in a dynamic way. It becomes much easier to justify enemies from distant areas of the dungeon not getting involved in the fight than it is to justify enemies from one or two rooms over not getting involved. It also helps avoid the issue of empty or “pointless” rooms. You can toss in a bedroom on the map, and it becomes a place where a fight could happen depending on how things develop, instead of being predetermined to be mere decoration.
Not every section needs to have a fight. Every section should, however, have a point. That point may be as simple as establishing a little bit of background and atmosphere, but it should still be there, and you should have it in mind when you run that section for the players. Try to not make unimportant things seem important, and if you want players to interact with something, give them a reason to do so.
You can use sections to communicate narrative scope to your players in useful ways. When you start thinking of areas as sections, you may often find it natural to describe areas as sections. Instead of saying, “you enter a thirty-foot hallway. There are two doors on either side,” you might say, “you walk into a long hallway, and as you go along it you peek through the doors on either side and see that you’ve entered a bedroom suite.” In the first case, you’ve told the players that they are expected to approach each of the four doors as a new area, and you will often spend an unnecessary amount of time having the players say, “okay, I check the first door on the left… Okay, now the second…” By describing the whole section at once, you communicate to your players that, narratively, this can be treated as a single area, and they are free to interact with it as such (instead of searching each room for a hidden key one at a time, they may say something like, “I search the rooms for the hidden key”). Obviously, if you want the players to be clear about each room as they check it, you shouldn’t describe it this way, but if that sort of thing isn’t important to your game, you can avoid long, pointless sequences by thinking of sections instead of rooms.
When you’re putting together a dungeon, it is okay to limit the number of sections to a small number. I often build decent dungeons with a single section, or just two sections. When you build a dungeon as a single section, you fill the dungeon with a single encounter’s worth of enemies and have them react realistically, rallying to deal with the PCs. A two-section dungeon can often be something like two sections with a natural choke point between them, and you can have the enemies in the second section start fortifying their section as the PCs clear the first section (consider giving the PCs a way to bypass this choke point with smart play).
Big sections mean big, epic fights. You can really ramp up the number of enemies in your encounters if you give the players ways to deal with them tactically. Let players do things like hold doors shut, assassinate enemies before the fight starts, set traps, and do other cool things to shape the battlefield and control the encounter. If you really want to push the players, make the encounters deadly difficult if they don’t do these things.
When you plop a fight’s worth of enemies in a single room, you limit the players’ ability to do much about the situation. When you have the enemies for a fight spread across a section, a whole world of options opens up to the PCs. A well-designed dungeon should present sections as mini sandboxes, and the players should be able to interact with the dungeon in ways beyond “enter room, kill room, go to next room.” Even if, ultimately, that’s what the PCs are doing, the dungeon feels much more like a real place when they need to pay attention to the overall layout as part of their tactical planning instead of just as a collection of separate rooms.