by Delphine Lynx October 18, 2002
This article serves as an introduction to what will ultimately be a six part series on dungeon creation. As such, the intent of this first piece is to provide an overview, as well as hopefully to assist in deciding which style of dungeon best suits your particular need. Appropriate essays will be added in the coming weeks to provide more detailed and useful information about each specific dungeon style.
“Have an objective to give your bender a theme. For instance, stalking and killing a wild pig with a bowie knife.”
- – Hunter S. Thompson, advice on ‘adventure’ in Men’s Journal
Player 1: Hey, guys, how about a little dungeon crawl?”
Player 2: Dungeon crawling? Sure, let’s do it. We’ll walk in, pick locked door X, kill gatekeeper Y, pass through rotting refuse Z, A, B and C, kill dragons D through J and nimbly escape with the K from trapped chest L. It’ll be a cinch.
But as the one creating the dungeon in the first place, you’d rather it weren’t. So we’re going to discuss some ways to make your dungeons interesting, unique, and give them that fresh twist that’s been missing from the last 3426, which all followed the above pattern. Please keep in mind that, in addition to avoiding mechanical issues completely, this article also assumes the inclusion of things such as scripts and mob programs. If your MUD is lacking one or more of these, some of the suggestions herein may be inapplicable to you.
Given the scope of fantasy dungeons alone, I have chosen to divide general dungeons into three types — “Current”, “Cave Complex” and “Ancient”, the first and last of which may be sub-divided further into “advanced” and “basic” (as is arguably the case with caves, as well). With this division in mind, an analysis will be presented of each in turn, followed by the techniques I’ve found to be of help in improving upon them.
Advanced-Current dungeons are some of my favorite, though unfortunately they are the least often applicable. The idea here is to create the feel of something James Bond would walk through, had he been a fantasy character. With these, what you want to strive for is descriptions of excellent craftsmanship, immaculate cleanliness, and lots of metal or finely wrought stone. Within these underground fortresses may be hidden some of the more interesting traps, simply because the feel of the dungeon does not lead to questioning either the realism or financial feasibility of a trap. As such, traps should be abundant and original in nature. Some of my favorites include: The falling ceiling, trap door (i.e. forced movement ‘down’), one-way-door and golem-as-a-statue.
Do your best to make the players feel that they’re constantly being watched, that their way through the dungeon is almost preordained, as if guided by some unseen hand. Make it very clear that each room is (appears to be) perfectly safe, only to shake the players up by adding traps/guards of a style that adds a threat where there was none.
Some possible uses for the Advanced-Current dungeon type include the lairs of powerful magicians, aristocrats with secrets, and in general any figure you want to elevate to extreme levels of power or wealth in the eyes of the players.
More mundane will be the Basic-Current dungeon, which forms the typical dungeon type of most fantasy games. Here is a dungeon currently in use, but one which follows the more traditional stone walls and leaky ceilings motif. It’s also probably the hardest to make interesting and different from the norm, based on the mere fact that it is what constitutes the norm.
My suggestion would be to avoid over placement of traps for such dungeons, so as to keep them rare and unexpected. What you can do instead is to rely on the natural environment of echoes and branching corridors to introduce monsters unexpectedly onto the scene, producing fights at the most unexpected moments (This also can serve as a barrier to clearing areas in one pass, if that’s something you object to).
In these dungeons, hammer home the squalor, the odor, and focus on what’s different about each room. If the floor of each is straw covered, if each has a ceiling that leaks, if all the bars are rusted…why mention it again? Instead, tell the players about the calendar cut into the wall of Cell 43. Of the word “Katie” chiseled into the floor of Cell 12, or the remains of a guard’s dinner sitting on a table by the door (Ideally a dinner which is an object and not part of the room description at all). By focusing on what’s different, you can avoid boring the players, for what you don’t repeat will seem to be less important than what you’re actually saying. By doing so, they have the opportunity to feel that each room is mostly different, rather than identical to the last. Remember, a lot can be done to deface the inside of a prison cell which may tell you about its occupant. Even in dungeons without actual prisoners, try focusing on different things in each room – even if it’s just a matter of rotating between the player’s senses.
It’s a bit redundant to list the possible uses for such a dungeon. Indeed, most any ‘modern’ keep, castle, mansion or fortress will have one to some extent, and as such they may be used most anywhere.
And now onto the great Cave Complex style dungeon. The cave complex may actually be the easiest sort of dungeon to make interesting and different, just for the fact that it’s not man made. Want a random 20 meter drop or climb? Go for it. Want a lake? Go for that, too. Want a hot spring, an alternate exit, or a nest of snakes? Well, why not?
The advantages of caves are their inherently illogical nature and multi-leveled design. Work to confuse the players by wrapping the cave around, over, under and through itself. Insert natural obstacles that they will perhaps need equipment to overcome. And remember… A cave can be enormous. Just because they have the right cave doesn’t mean they have the right entrance, nor does it mean they don’t have several days of hard work ahead of them (figuratively, of course). Likewise, there are enough potential natural disasters in a cave to easily equal any dungeon’s traps in terms of danger. Rock slides, cave-ins, floods, pitfalls, it’s all there. In utilizing such natural hazards you can decrease the frequency of traps without affecting the danger your players find themselves in, which appeases both players and you, as the area’s creator. On a last note about caves, remember the possible diversity of creatures within. A quick glance through the Monster’s Manual (or equivalent book for those of you without AD&D based MUDs) will reveal a plethora of cave dwelling creatures. Put them there!
I like to use cave complexes for creature lairs, for which it’s an obvious choice, or the setting for the pursuit of some fleeing opponent as part of a quest. By using a cave, danger and challenge can be added to the pursuit of a foe, even if that foe is considered weaker than the PCs and unlikely to receive any deliberate help.
Ancient style dungeons can be some of the most dangerous, for they combine the traits of their modern counterparts with those of caves. Indeed, in rounding a corner, the players can never be certain whether they will face a caved-in old tunnel section, or the blast of fire from a still perfectly working trap. Likewise, these dungeons may be infested with creatures, some having grown extremely powerful over the ages.
It is these dungeons in which you will want to set some of your game’s most climatic scenes, possibly even connecting them to a cave, sewer, or more modern dungeon.
In closing, I’d like to offer just one more tip, not specific to any genre of dungeon. Plan it out carefully. Especially with some of the cave style dungeons, if you make it up off the top of your head the dungeon won’t be nearly as complex or unpredictable as it could be (plan to achieve unpredictability. Irony abounds). Likewise, you’ll be liable to make mistakes or miss the opportunity for something which in retrospect seems obvious. By planning your dungeon, you’re that much more likely to design a death trap into which the players will honestly not wish to venture further, but for the lure of riches untold.
Hey guys, how about a little dungeon crawl?
Dungeon Crawling? – copyright © 2002 by Delphine Lynx – All rights reserved.