Dungeon design has evolved over the years, as gaming fashions have changed and various games and editions have risen and fallen. Dungeons designed decades ago are noticeably diﬀerent to those created today. Dungeon design philosophy has changed.
Some aspects of this change are good. However, I’ve been growing dissatisﬁed with some design elements of recent dungeons and how these changes aﬀect the party’s explorations and the general ﬂow of the game.
No Upcoming Events
In the main, today’s designers are great at telling you what has happened before the party reaching an encounter area, and they often provide a tremendous sense of the various NPCs’ motivations. However, we rarely get any information about what happens if the party attack and retreat or take a long time to reach certain areas. Thus—at least to me—the dungeon doesn’t seem a very dynamic place. Of course, I can decide what happens myself—not a complete idiot—but it would be nice to have some guidance from the designer.
No Wandering Monsters
Gah! I love wandering monsters. I do, I do, I do (as long as they make sense in the overall context of the dungeon).
I ﬁnd it baﬄing that few denizens in modern dungeons ever seem to move around. Undoubtedly, the more organised groups occasionally move about, go foraging for food or whatever. Don’t they get bored just sitting around? Apparently not. Dungeons—and most of their inhabitants—are passive, which allows the party to dictate the pace of their exploration.
While I can understand this from a publisher’s point of view—wandering monsters take up valuable page space and don’t add much to the story—they do add a tremendous amount to the feeling of verisimilitude to the dungeon. They make dungeons feel so much more dynamic and “lived in.”
No Empty Space
Again, from a publisher’s point of view, I understand the lack of empty space in dungeons. (I’m defining empty space as unoccupied rooms that may—or may not—contain anything interesting.) Describing empty space takes up space (how ironic is that?), leaving less space and word count for challenges and the overall storyline.
That said, empty space is important in a dungeon. Empty space:
- Gives the various factions and groups in the dungeon breathing room and the freedom to move about without being constantly in conﬂict with one another.
- Increases the amount of ground the party covers between ﬁghts (and rests). This adds to their sense of accomplishment when they look at the map. That might sound trivial, but it’s an important factor often overlooked. Provides a good change of pace as it allows the party to use other skills, slow down, etc.
- Provides somewhere for the party to rest/hide.
These days, it seems every time the party enter a new area, they trigger a ﬁght or walk into a trap. There’s not a lot of surprise or suspense to that formula. Door, ﬁght, loot, door, ﬁght, loot etc. (This can also mean at the end of a session, the characters’ progress seems pitifully slow, which is a bit disheartening.
An Aside: Smaller Dungeons
In the good old days, dungeons seemed huge. Often a dungeon had at least two levels, and each of the levels filled a full page in the module. Dungeons have shrunk somewhat since then. Miraculously, many modern dungeons fit neatly into the bounds of an average battle mat. That’s handy for the publisher and the GM but somewhat limiting and boring from a design point of view.
No Level Inappropriate Encounters
With very few exceptions, all encounters in modern dungeons seem level appropriate. I’m not lamenting the fact I don’t slaughter whole parties of hapless characters every session, but sometimes it’s fun for the party to deal with very hard or very easy encounters.
Running away is a valuable skill to cultivate, while crushing weak foes is fun! And again—of course—level inappropriate encounters build a sense of verisimilitude into the dungeon.
Finally, the presence of level inappropriate encounters adds to the sense of tension at the table. While as a GM, I would never spring a CR+5 encounter on a group, clever groups can pick up on the “subtle” signs (perhaps scorched and splintered bodies, great gouges out of the walls and so on) that something rather challenging lurks ahead. If they chose to rush ahead after that, that’s their problem.
The Final Word
There’s lots to like about modern-day dungeons and dungeon design. However, a wise designer or GM does not ignore the dungeons of yesteryear (particularly if the players at the table are of a certain vintage).
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