Monday, August 24, 2020

Let's Build A Dungeon - Part 1 - The Story Of The Dungeon

On Friday I talked about how there are certain parts of running games and being a GM that the new systems don't teach. One of the more commonly discussed areas of this lapse is that with 5e Dungeons & Dragons, the game no longer teaches you how to make dungeons.

That statement isn't completely true. The DMG has a section in their 'Adventure Environments' that talks about making dungeons. However, the DMG is focused on the story of the dungeon not the mechanics of building the dungeon. Which means that it is of very little help when it comes to a new GM - or someone who hasn't been in the game for a long time - trying to learn how to custom build their own dungeon for the PCs to delve.

I personally fall into that latter category. I DM'd back in AD&D 2nd Edition, and then was away from running D&D in any form until 5e. Over that time I've had a number of bad experiences with dungeons in play that makes me avoid them. However, when I ran across this conversation it made me think maybe the problem wasn't with dungeon crawling itself. Maybe the problem was I had played with people who never learned how to build or run a dungeon.

Which brings us to here. I've found several resources - the 5e DMG, Old School Essentials, and some helpful blog posts and online resources - and with those, let's build a dungeon.

Part 1 - The Story of the Dungeon
I know, I know. I said above that 5e focuses on the story of the dungeon and that is no help for building one. Except technically I didn't say 'no' help. I said 'very little' help. The story of the dungeon is important because it answers a few important questions for us. Namely the Who, What, and How of the dungeon. In longer form, the questions we are most concerned about are these:

  1. Who built or converted this dungeon?
  2. What purpose does the dungeon serve?
  3. What was the dungeon originally?
  4. How does it serve this purpose?
The 5E DMG's Questions
The 5E DMG starts with the location of the jungle, but that's not really super important for the dungeon. It can inform some choices - i.e. what monsters are in the area - but I'm a firm believer that any monster can be reskinned to fit the GM's needs. Also, our dungeon will appear wherever we need it to appear. The location may be important in the context of a campaign, but it is not as important for the purpose of building a dungeon.

After location, the DMG gives us a D20 roll for the Dungeon's creator. Rolling a D20 I get: 9 - Elves (including drow.) So the Elves (of some sort) created this dungeon. Oddly enough, the creator chart doesn't care about Location. I'll take that as more reason why I shouldn't either. After this the DMG gives charts for the Alignment and Class of the creator which gave me a 'Chaotic Good, Monk.'

Our creator was a Chaotic Good elven (possibly drow) Monk.

Next we have the purpose of the dungeon. Another D20 roll gives us "Stronghold" so the purpose of this dungeon is to be a base of operations for something or someone (like our creating Chaotic Good Elven Monk!)

Finally we have the 'Dungeon' History in the 5e DMG which for this gives us Conquered by Invaders.

The Story So Far
The story for this Dungeon so far is that it was a stronghold made by a chaotic good elven monk, that was conquered by invaders. This leaves us with two questions the 5e DMG does not prompt us to answer: what was the dungeon originally, and how does it serve its purpose (of being a stronghold)?

Origin and Method
The last two questions boil down to the 'origin' and 'method' of the dungeon. The origin could be it was custom built. More likely, something was converted. A monk building a stronghold likely built one out of a temple of their order. Pacifist monks become militant monks complete with walls and defenses. That line also gives us the 'how.' How does this dungeon serve as a strong hold? It has walls, it is designed with defense from outside in mind, it can house troops. It likely has fall back points and bottle necks to help people hold off superior numbers or sized opponents from outside.

For our dungeon, we'll go with the temple origin and it does it by effectively becoming a fort built up around the temple with walls, fall back points, and all that.

Why Does The Story Matter?
The real question though, is why does this story matter? Yes, it's all nice and good to know this, but how does it help us build our dungeon? On one hand it does not help us with the 'building' of the dungeon (with one exception.) On the other, it is vitally important for us to design the dungeon.

The Creator Matters Because...
While anyone can hire someone to build a base for them, the sensibilities of the creator are still going to be there. A good aligned creature is going to have different considerations and priorities than an evil aligned character. And this is going to show up in a number of ways - including what types of traps and defenses are present. For example, I expect a good aligned creature would be less likely to have traps that caused suffering. I also would expect a mage to have more magical based traps than say a rogue or a fighter.

The Purpose Matters Because...
Everywhere, even a dungeon, has a purpose. yes, there is the purpose of a place for your PCs to explore, but part of exploration is learning the story of a place and that is shown here. A temple is going to look and work different than a stronghold. Both are going to be very different from a vault or a death trap

The History Matters Because...
Whatever the place was built for, it has a purpose now that also needs to be kept in mind. A temple that became a nest for monsters is going to have different modifications than one that was taken over to become a bandit stronghold. This gives us what is going on now, and brings to mind what adjustments have been made by the new occupants.

The Origin Matters Because...
It has a direct bearing on the look of the final product. If a dungeon was originally a series of caves, then you need to start with a series of caves. If a dungeon was originally a temple, then you start with a temple. Whatever was built, was built on or in something else. And that is the starting point. It is also the original for your structural limitations and other things.

The Method Matters Because...
We need to know how the dungeon was designed to fill its purpose so we can actually design it along those lines.

Overall the story gives us the scope, scale, and specifics of the dungeon that we will keep in mind and use both for inspiration and for limits while making our dungeon. So what do we have for our dungeon?

  • Our dungeon was created by a Chaotic Good Monk
  • The dungeon was created to be a Stronghold
  • The dungeon was built around/in a Temple of some sort
  • It became a stronghold with the placement of walls, armaments, fallback points, and traps to protect the inhabitants
  • At some point the dungeon was conquered by invaders who have taken it over.

Depending on how much time I have this week, Part 2 will be on Wednesday or next Monday. But with part 2 we start looking at the actual design of a dungeon.

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