If you’ve played a role playing game, be it tabletop, video, or pen-and-paper, odds are you’ve adventured in a dungeon. We all know, essentially, what those things entail: various rooms, random monsters, the odd trap, and heaps of treasure. You and your intrepid buddies tramp around these places methodically, as though shopping at the mall, hoovering up whatever gold and silver and so on you can lay your grubby mitts upon, and then leave satisfied. It’s like an Easter Egg Hunt, except with more magical swords and many fewer dyed, hard-boiled eggs.
In general, I find the average dungeon experience lacking. I’ve discussed this before when describing one of my personal favorite dungeons of my design. To quote myself:
Dungeons have a problem. They are, in their most commonly encountered form, a concept much better executed in a video game than in a pen-and-paper role-playing game. The reason for this is pretty simple: there is no conflict. That’s right–no conflict. There is no doubt that the PCs are going to scour the dungeon for all the wealth they can find. There is no doubt that the monsters encountered within are going to try to kill/eat them. Everybody is equipped to handle the problem, on both sides, and their tactics are mostly already in place. Everybody knows their job, is ready to do it, and the only thing that really matters is how the dice fall.
As mentioned in that article, I like dungeons to have some drama to them. In order to have that drama, they need a story.
When putting together a dungeon, I try to make everything fit within a certain set of themes or motifs, sort of like a wedding planner, but with knives and poison gas traps rather than doilies and name cards. The worst thing to do in a dungeon is to just slap something in there for the hell of it. You aren’t making a video game level when designing a dungeon (and one of the reasons I generally dislike video game RPGs is because of the following); you are placing a ‘real’ structure inside the fabric of a ‘real’ world and it needs to mesh with and fit into that reality. If the dungeon is infested with hordes and hordes of giant rats, you need to ask yourself the question “why are there so many rats hanging around here, anyway?” This should be followed up by “what do the rats eat?” and “how did they get here in the first place?”
These questions may seem immaterial to you, but they really aren’t. In the first place, your players are probably going to ask such questions at some point, and having an answer is infinitely better than saying ‘they just *are*, okay?’ Furthermore, exploring the answers to these questions adds to the depth of the dungeon itself (and I mean depth in the dramatic sense, rather than the physical one) and can give you much more compelling and interesting things to have your players encounter and do when within them.
To state more directly what I’m getting at, we can probably agree generally that dungeons are made up of four elements: rooms, traps, monsters, and treasure. Let’s take a look at each one and discuss the storytelling potential inherent within them.
By ‘rooms’, I mean ‘the physical layout of the dungeon’. Is it underground? Underwater? At the top of a mountain? In the sewers of a major city? Is it an old castle? A new castle? A not-yet-finished castle? Whichever of these things you pick has a profound impact on what can reasonably be found within its confines. It is extremely unlikely, for instance, that you’ll find a dragon living in a city sewer or a tribe of cannibals living in a sky-castle. Why? Well, how did they get there? What will they eat while there? Can the dragon even manage to leave?
Furthermore, you won’t find a lot of secret passages made of stone inside a wooden tree fort, just like you probably won’t find a lot of death traps in places where lots of creatures actually live (seriously, why would you make a home in a place where poison darts are likely to shoot you at any time). The type of place and when it was built indicates the kind of technology that will go into the building. Ancient ruins won’t have the latest elevator systems (unless they’re one of those super-sophisticated lost civilizations), while it would seem odd for the evil vampire’s state-of-the-art floating fortress to not use any kind of waterwheels to run its internal systems.
Figuring out the physical design of the dungeon is the starting point for your story surrounding that same dungeon. Why was it built? How did it get here? Is it still fulfilling its original purpose? If not, why not? How has it been altered? Why? What effect has that had on its layout?
Traps should be based upon the nature of the layout and rooms, as described above. They also should be used sparingly (there are only so many traps players want to spend time evading, and they never really want to solve the same trap more than once) and should be bound by some reasonable laws of physics. If you’ve got dart guns, can they reload themselves? How? Can that be interfered with? How is a trap set off? Why was it put here? Remember: traps are dangerous things for more than just the players themselves and, in most cases, the people or things that designed this dungeon didn’t expect the players to infiltrate specifically (well, it’s possible, but unlikely). That means the builders had reason and rationales for putting in the traps they did. If this is a vault, they obviously would want a way to bypass the traps so they can access said vault. If this is a tomb, they aren’t going to build in a self-destruct device (the tomb is a holy place, after all). Nobody’s going to put a firebomb trap in their fancy wooden villa. Nobody’s going to shell out the money to put a shark pit in the middle of a desert pyramid without a very good reason.
Traps, also, should be used as dramatic elements in some way. They should complicate the plot by introducing tension or conflict either among the players themselves or between them and some enemy. If you don’t plan on using a trap this way and rather merely intend to make it a simple physical obstacle to roll dice at, then why include it at all? If you set up a land mine, the intention of that land mine is to injure or kill a member of the party (likely injure) so that the rest of the party will need to make a decision on how to deal with their injured friend (this kind of trap, incidentally, works best in systems where there are penalties to action for being injured).
To my mind, dungeons should usually either involve traps OR monsters, and seldom both. If it does involve both, the monsters should have some kind of reliable way of avoiding the traps because, as mentioned above, few creatures want to live in a place where they might die in a deadfall trap if they roll over while asleep and, furthermore, if they aren’t intelligent enough to care, most of them will probably be destroyed by traps before the PCs ever need to stick swords into them.
With the possible exception of the undead, golem, and other non-living constructs, keep in mind that monsters are alive. As such, they need food, water (probably), a place to sleep, and mostly won’t be content to remain trapped within this secret dungeon forever and ever. This means that either the design of the dungeon needs to be altered to accommodate the creature living there (dragons need a big door, for instance), or the creatures need to be designed to fit with the dungeon. Also, monsters should behave in keeping with their intelligence. The aforementioned giant rats, for instance, will likely be disinclined to fight with armored humans for long, if at all, and particularly not if they start waving around scary magicks. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide dramatic complications (a squealing rat stampede, for instance, could start a fire or wake up an actually nasty monster), but nobody is going to have their legs gnawed off by twenty pound rats.
Intelligent creatures, conversely, won’t be content to stay in their ‘room’ to wait for the enemy to come to them, necessarily. It’s their dungeon–they know their way around, probably. They’ll move. They’ll set ambushes. They’ll avoid trouble. The frost giant in his ice castle probably has a pen full of hungry polar bears he can release at intruders and he’s likely to go and release them, if he can, as soon as he hears humans trashing his foyer.
Finally, treasure should be comprised of those things that would actually be kept in the dungeon in question. In some cases (sewers, for instance) there will be precious little of value. Nobody foraging through a sewer should expect to find the crown jewels; if they do, there’s a story there. The GM should pursue it somehow.
Treasure is valuable, and most valuable things belong or belonged to someone. Someone fashioned it for a purpose, put it here for a reason, and so on. This is partially the reason why cursed items make no damned sense (why would you keep the sword that stabs *you* instead of the bad guys?) unless set up for a reason, often as a kind of trap (think the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
There’s a lot of dramatic potential in treasure, and it shouldn’t be squandered.
Overall, there is enormous dramatic potential in dungeons, but it is too often not exploited because we GMs are too lazy to bother making something cool out of it. Give the place a story, set up plots related to the dungeon itself, create conflicts that reveal character rather than render it irrelevant. Mix the procedural with the dramatic.