Traditionally, dungeon designers begin creating a fantasy adventure by drawing a map. (Really traditional dungeon designers cram as many rooms as they can fit onto a single piece of graph paper, but never mind that!) Then faced with dozens of empty rooms, the Dungeon Master is faced with the soul-numbing task of “stocking” them all. Most rule-sets will have a set of random tables to help out with this, but I’ll tell ya… this just seems to result in a mess if you ask me. I know they’re trying to help get a novice designer rolling and all, but really… you’re not going to come up with the next Keep on the Borderlands like that!
There’s got to be a better way. And there is! But before I get to that, let me tell you why the old way doesn’t work. It’s the difference between someone noodling around with words and phrases until something that looks like a sonnet falls together… and someone thinking of what they want to say and then coming up with a rhyme that says it. It’s the difference between noodling around on a scale while the rhythm section bangs out a set of chords… and imagining a musical idea and attempting to play that.
So if you’re designing a dungeon… don’t start with a map and some random results and try to make an adventure out of that. Work the other direction! Start with what you want to “say” with the dungeon and then build everything else around that.
But where should you begin if you want to get at the real heart of that…? I think it’s the wandering monster chart.
See, the main problem with the map/stocking approach is that it gives the impression that the dungeon environment is static. But it really isn’t. Especially if you play with the wandering monster rules. (A lot of people don’t, I know. Shame on them!) It you’re using them, the dungeon just plain comes alive. And in practice, more of the encounters in a game session will come from these than the stuff that is carefully placed in the dungeon! So determining what you want to do with that will account for a significant chunk of your gameplay– all with very little design effort!
To give you an example, here is one of mine. Now… a straight up d12 is traditional for this sort of thing, but I wanted just a little bit more granularity. I’m using a red die to determine the table and white die to select the specific monster result.
Here’s the red die table:
My thinking here is that the having all intelligent monsters on the prowl would be too deadly, too much of a grind. The so-called nuisance encounters are a break from standoffs, negotiations, and ambushes and are meant to provide a little local color.
Here’s the nuisance table:
My idea with all the bats is that eventually the players will figure out something about their habits, what triggers them, and how to deal with them. I also think it would be cool if there were a battle at some point and then the players and beastmen alike get swarmed by a mass of them.
Giant spiders are meant to be a bit of a problem. Most of the time, they are easily dispatched… but I want there to be a chance that one of them can get through and actually kill a player character. Not every single time. But often enough that players don’t arbitrarily hang around the dungeon for no reason.
The idea for the Fungoid is that a player will get hurt… and then need a few weeks to recuperate while paying stiff rates to a healer. This is just meant to make the players choose between going back to the dungeon without their guy or else waiting around from him to get better. If they don’t wait… player characters will end up leveling at different rates and party composition will be varied. If they hang out in town… the players will tend to that side of the gameplay a little more, hitting up the their contacts, studying, collecting rumors and so forth. Meanwhile, the dungeon will get a solid chance to restock and adapt to the player’s actions. (Note: inspiration for this creature is from the story “Darla of Deodanth” by Louise Sorensen.)
The dimensional anomaly? I don’t actually know what I even want to do with this. I just want something weird happening. And yeah, I’m lazy enough to listen to what the players think it is before nailing down what it actually is! Maybe something from the other side is attempting to come through…? (Note: inspiration for this is from the story “War of the Ruby” by Brian K. Lowe.)
Okay, with these we are in well-trod gaming ground. And yeah, it’s mostly just an excuse to get bits of Axioms #2 on the table. Right here the bulk of the map requirements for the dungeon map have emerged. What we need is three lairs, one each for kobolds, orcs, and bug bears. Why are they here and how well they get along is a minor question we need to figure out at some point. Classic examples of how to rig up a monster lair can be found in Keep on the Borderlands. The main thing to think about when you make them is to set up sort of a Rube Goldberg chain of events to happen when the players show up.
The white apes…? Those are all down on the second level and they come up get rent payments from the beastmen. If the players go down to the second level, throw a whole bunch of white apes at ’em and you’ll have time to start designing the rest of that level! And that lone white ape…? If the players run into him, he’ll have a significant amount of coin on him and will run like heck to the nearest staircase down. The players might even discover a new way down if they trail him. Or maybe a clue to where a secret passage might be….
My idea with the worm is that it maybe crashes through the walls and then an avalanche maybe does more damage than the critter. Maybe it’ll connect two different passages, opening up a way around a locked door that has stymied the party. Maybe it’ll open up a passage to a section of the dungeon that none of the beastmen have been to. If the players explore it right then, they’ll get a chance to nab some serious loot. And maybe awaken ancient terrors.
The delusional adventurer can be randomly selected from your game’s pregenereted character list. Maybe this guy will have hints to where a big score is. Or more likely ominous warnings about where not to go.
A whole group of white apes…? Maybe someone was late with their “rent” payment.
The Demonoid… think an alien Balrog from the third level. If he’s up here, he won’t be alone. And beastmen will start showing up en masse– but they might not get too close! If the party is trying to leave the dungeon with a major artifact, this result will automatically greet them as they try to escape.
Carl the Clever…? Not sure what happened to the rest of his party. But he’s always got a plan to score a great deal of loot… with a whole lot of risk. His game plan is to persuade the party to do something crazy, be one of the survivors… and then retire with his larger-than-average share. He also is privy to arcane knowledge that will allow him to use the dimensional anomalies as a portal to another world, something along the lines of A. Merritt’s “Through the Dragon Glass”. He may go through a portal if one turns up, he may not even know they are in this area, and it’s not even a sure thing whether or not the players can follow him through or recreate the effect on their own later.
The NPC party will either be evil universe versions of the player characters looking for a fight or else a competing adventuring group that could maybe be convinced to form a temporary alliance.
Now… that’s what’s going on in the dungeon. You can now go start working out a map that would actually make sense as a place to have this sort of action and events. But here’s the thing. If you’re an experience Dungeon Master, you could probably sit down and run an entire session just with these notes I’ve made here! Because you’ve already imagined it. At the very least… you could sketch out most of what you would need to run it as the players explored it.
Wandering monster tables are an absolute cinch to come up with. Way easier than coming up with a coherent dungeon concept ex nihilo. But if you have a decent enough set of wandering monster tables, you almost can’t stop yourself from thinking through what the dungeon that would own them would look like!