It’s hard to make a good D&D dungeon. Geek & Sundry always strives to give good DMing tips. Seriously, we throw ‘em around like candy. But we don’t often talk about dungeon design. Fortunately, Extra Credits is here to help. Their “Design Club” series just took a deep look at what makes one of the best dungeons in the classic D&D video game Baldur’s Gate so compelling. Though they look at the Durlag’s Tower dungeon from a video game design perspective, all of their tips can serve you as a tabletop dungeon designer. You owe it to yourself to watch this series.
“But we can’t just jump right into the first floor of the dungeon. No, no, no, no. First we gotta talk about how you get to Durlag’s Tower.”
How do you want your players to feel while they’re inside the dungeon? Do you want them to feel the wonder and mystery of exploring ancient ruins, or the fear and exhilaration of storming an orc fortress? In some D&D games, you’re told to explore a dungeon in order to advance the story. In sandbox exploration games (and in the case of Durlag’s Tower), you explore a dungeon because you stumbled across it and are compelled by your own curiosity. Neither is inherently better than the other, but discovering things through unprompted exploration always conveys a greater sense of wonder and mystery.
In short, decide on what tone you want to convey, then use the environment to set that tone before the PCs even reach the dungeon.
“You can break each room down into four components: its combat component, its narrative component, its puzzle component, and its reward component. Every room will focus on these components to different degrees, but a good designer can usually deliver… on three out of the four.”
This Combat, Narrative, Puzzle, and Reward (or CNPR) method of dungeon design is the core of Extra Credits’ analysis. Let it guide your design, too. A good method is to first write down everything that comes naturally—your first draft—and then edit it through the CNPR lens to make everything pop.
A good designer doesn’t just throw monsters down and call it a combat encounter, nor do they just place traps willy-nilly. In this room of Durlag’s Tower, it uses slow-moving ghasts to trick overeager fighters into running straight into combat… and onto a knockout gas trap. Go ahead and steal this encounter wholesale for a dungeon room, but also consider other clever monster-trap combinations. Flying monsters plus pit traps? Golems plus a room that fills with water? In this way, your combat component dovetails with your puzzle component, forcing clever thinking.
It’s important that you ease players into this mindset so they aren’t overwhelmed when complex encounters start rolling in later in the dungeon, but don’t ease them in by delinking the combat and the puzzles. Elegant dungeon design uses early encounters as an Invisible Tutorial to gently introduce mechanics and playstyles to their players in a safe(r) environment.
“Now you’re in what appears to be a sumptuous dining hall. […] As the player moves left, the room’s sense of grand opulence gives way to an increasing number of signs of strangeness and decay.”
Why do players want to explore dungeons? They want to have fun, and fun comes largely from excitement and reward. This reward doesn’t always have to be treasure, though some loot is always appreciated. A compelling story is also a sufficient reward, allowing your narrative component to sometimes serve as your reward component.
You do not need NPCs or even dialogue to convey a room’s narrative component. Monster selection—ghasts instead of goblins, for instance—can do it. Set dressing—fine dining tables fading to desiccated corpses—can do it, too. By making your players want to know what happened to this place, you increase their engagement in the game. There are other ways to do this, too; sometimes the PCs want to kill a major boss, and barrels through the dungeon to get to them. Sometimes, like in Durlag’s Tower, a subtly stated mystery drives the players to want to investigate further.
“Notice how every room in this place has three or more exits… or just the one.”
The best-designed dungeons use their architecture to at give players the opportunity to feel like explorers and simultaneously create a well-crafted narrative reveal. Durlag’s Tower does this through its hubs and mini-hubs. A good hub room is more than a safe space for adventurers to rest after combat. Since it’s a room PCs are returning to over and over again, a hubs should reinforce your narrative. The best hubs not only connect the dungeon physically, they also connect it thematically.
One other minor point this episode sort of makes is how important it is to balance which players are in the spotlight. The doppelganger encounter highly rewarded magic-users, while the skeleton warrior was easier for fighters. Since you’re designing a dungeon just for your home group, try to create scenarios that play to each PCs’ strengths. Let them feel good.
With all of these tactics in mind, take a look at the final video and see how everything comes together. No commentary from us this time. Let your own designer brain work through this one, and see what you can glean on your own.
What can you tell us about dungeon design? Are you going to design a dungeon using the CPNR method right now? Let us know in the comments, or tweet to @GeekandSundry.