Monday, November 19, 2012

Dungeon Design and Stocking - with examples!

Recently there was some discussion on Google+ about dungeon design, and if it's possible to teach better dungeon design.  I frankly don't know, but it got me thinking about how I design dungeons vs. how I know others who I think are good GMs design dungeons.  Below is a glimpse of my method- with illustrations from the Mute Tower, which I finished running last week, and which presents a simple dungeon that was perhaps a bit the railroad because it exists only for the purpose of finding a map and some radioactive pebbles to get a party into ASE.

Now I design my dungeons "organically" or "naturalistically".  I rarely use random tables, and I try to stock them in a way that makes sense.  This creates it's own issues, but I feel it works well to build an interesting and alive feeling adventuring environment.
From VALL3Z GAX at - whole adventure based on this drawing...

First Step - Where is the Dungeon?  

This isn't trivial, its about placing the thing in the campaign world and determining how to entice the party into the dungeon.  Most players are willing to indulge the GM a bit on going to the nice new dungeon the GM has made, but there's no reason not to help this along.   Location is important because getting to a dungeon can be a game session in itself if it's done wrong.  For the Mute Tower I knew what had been going on in my game world, and why the players were out looking for adventure.

In my Land of A Thousand Towers (Pat Wetmore's ASE game world) there's a war going on, a nasty war of raid and counter raid amongst the forces of good (well not wholly evil and embodying human progress) and ancient occult evil.  Of course like the wars of the Mongols, or the Indian Wars in the US, this running fight between cavalry has left a lot of towns destroyed and created a lot of refugee - that's who the PCs are and why they need money.  So the introductory adventure doesn't start in the big city, but at the edge of the "safe" area, a dusty cattle town named Marsten. The players have a choice here - look for adventure locally or continue on with the streams of refugees to the metropolis and join its underclass.

I want them to look around locally so I can give them the map to the megadungeon and the key to get in.  So the question becomes - what's near a dusty cattle town?  Bandits obviously, or deserters, and this was one option I gave the players, either become bandits or head South (and meet bandits).  The Bandits could have a map and crate of sick rock, stolen from the Temple of Science.

I don't enjoy bandit lairs though - they aren't Gonzo enough for a real ASE game, so I was going to go with local ruins.  Introductory ruins present their own challenge - the party isn't ready to roam the wide lands and battle off the alpha predators of Hex 4B, so the ruins must be easy to get to.  They also can't be too deadly (obviously).  Unfortunately there has to be a darn good reason why a ruin near town hasn't been completely looted.

So I am left with a bandit lair or some ruins that are near town that hasn't been looted clean for some reason?

I went with tower (though I was ready to convert the basic enemies to bandits if I had to, for example the party got captured on the road). 

The logic of the place if that it's an ancient tower a few miles out of town, built using long lost techniques and later home to the "Wizard" overlord of Marsten, who was burned out by the forces of order a generation ago.  Old folks in town remember the bad days and so rumors are naturally available.  The place has been looted, but more treasure has moved in and some was left behind (though not in very obvious places).

What's the layout of this place?
So now I know why the tower was built (as a research station), what it's been since (watch-tower and home to a petty despot). This lets me figure out how it was built and what the floor plan will be.  I went with a round tower, with many small levels (once used for detection instruments), wings (living space and labs) and a basement (storage, physical plant and a safe room).

Original Uses of the Mute Tower
So here's what the Mute tower would have been like if it was entered when it was used as an ancient technologically sophisticated science/monitoring station.

Jade Areas: Living Quarters
Purple Areas: Laboratory, Monitoring Machines and Work Areas
Orange Areas: Storage, Power, Sewer

What's Happened to the Dungeon?

Well most recently the Mute tower was a fortress for a petty despot.  I decided this "Wizard" was the physical type, a mutated cyborg of enormous strength and only limited magical or super scientific ability.  The Wizard had a few cyborg and low end robotic servitors, but most/all of them would have been destroyed. I also stole his appearance from one of the He-Man villains, but that's another story.

So the place was home to a baddy of the megalomaniac sort and re-purposed. Then it was ransacked.  So some areas changed purpose - some of the tower became the personal lair of the Wizard, and the main floor central living area became a throne room. Additionally the Lab on 2nd level was converted to a defensive area as was a smaller tower level.

In the battle to take the tower and the looting that followed I figured that several of the rooms suffered, the throne room was looted (except for dangerous or trapped parts), the living areas, and lab on the first floor destroyed and the guard/fighting rooms above smashed.  Some storage areas were cleaned out, but since the tower was never occupied by the invaders much was left undamaged once they wizard was dead.

At this point I know the basic layout, purpose and room placement.  Shelter is available almost everywhere, though some areas are better than others, and there is water on the bottom level (both as condensation and as part of the old sewer system), but no natural food sources.  This limits  my monster placement - which is my next step.

What would live in an empty and desolate tower?  First, things with no where else to go or nomadic creatures using it as a base.  Also I don't really want this dungeon to be a fortress of some kind of small organized force - it would slaughter the party and remove any element of 'dungeon crawl' because the enemy would muster its forces in defense unless the PC's were real sneaky (unlikely and cruel to demand).  More important an organized force would make the tower a mono-culture of enemies, and be pretty boring.

Monster Placement and Ranges

The Map above shows monster placement a ranges: Goblins (Orange), Servitor Cyborg (Pink) and Carrion Crawlers (Green).

So what can I put in this dungeon?  Well I think that Johnny Two Bad the Wizard is too good a villain to leave dead, but a wizard, even a weak one is going to mangle a 1st level party.  So ... one of Two Bad's servitors has recovered his body and patched it back together, he's been scavenging parts and science.  An 8HP 1st level magic using cyborg is the only opposition.  He's up in the top of the tower working on revivifying the master - and all he needs is fresh blood to make it complete.  Of course if he can't convince the PCs to willingly help him by donating their blood he'll cast sleep and revive his master who will demand subservience.  Mostly though this will be a puzzle.  We have something sort of like an intelligent villain, and something like a trap that if played wrong could be deadly - I will need some sort of puzzle that can be solved to weaken the wizard/zombie if risen and or stop the servitor from casting sleep.  Secondly there needs to be more monsters - something trapping the servitor in his tower.

As an introductory dungeon this means something weak, and in ASE goblins are perfect - stupid, not inquisitive, vaguely organized and more a nuisance than a threat unless in large numbers.  I figure a group of the creatures has gotten in and is camped out.  They're incredibly unsophisticated and (unlike bandits) wouldn't have bothered to explore the tower unless anything else attacked them.  They have spread out a bit and even figured out how to keep a watch and use the only working ballista on level 2.  The goblins (unlike the robot servitor - who is basically an undead) need certain things.  They will take over the old living area and use the water and sewer there.  They are undoubtedly hunting and raiding for food outside the tower and have increased their security by taking over the second floor as a guard post. 

Finally there has to be something that destroyed/captured the Scientist Expedition, without survivors. Sure that could be goblins, but I wanted a third creature for the tower and decided to put some re-skinned carrion crawlers (giant snail slug things) in the basement. These creatures dug through the wall and paralyzed the sleeping expedition and laid eggs in them.  Crawlers aren't going to do much more than hang around and guard their gestating babies so this, like the servitor cyborg is a group of monsters that doesn't go very far.

Now in a more advanced dungeon with a more thoughtful, potent, or aggressive monsters one would have to figure out how they interact - here the servitor hides from the goblins (well can't really get to them with the elevator broken) and the carrion crawlers and goblins don't know about each other, because both are afraid or unable to open the hatch between level 1 and the Basement.

What else do we put in this place?

Traps - I decided I need a couple of traps - not dumb "poison needle to the face" traps, but puzzles.  As an introductory game green slime is a classic, but it's important never to make one's slime actually green (except for rare occasions when one does). So some sort of horrible slime floating on the water downstairs in the sewer area. Maybe a disease check if the red grey mold if killed and someone decides to mess around in the water.

Otherwise I want to trap the ancient cryogenic vault room behind the crawlers - sealed coffins containing the desiccated scientist bodies in red jock straps containing some kind of noxious gas that will be released if they are pried open.  The trap can be avoided if the controls on the coffins are used (which only works when the power is on).

Lastly I want something in the throne room that keeps the goblins away, so that the party isn't confronted with battle the moment they step in. Let's put some animated statutes/robots of a creepy appearance with gems in their eyes.  The invaders didn't loot them because the magical statutes gored the first trooper who tried to grab the gems.  They will gore anyone who tries to take the gems.

The servitor and wizard corpse in the top of the tower are arguable a trap - even if the PCs kill the servitor, they may temporarily revivify Two-Bad by flipping a giant knife switch.

The final "Trap"  is the armed ballista manned by goblins on level two - they little bastards can hit anyone approaching the tower from the South or Southeast.  Luckily they are bad shots and there is some cover on the approach.

Mute Tower Traps and tricks

Pink on the above map indicates a trapped room - blue a puzzle.

Puzzles - The main puzzles are the power machine, a simple reactor to turn on and power with a jar of sick rock from the cabinets along the south wall.  When active, power allows the operation of the noise cancellation machines on Level 6 and allows the party to open the coffins in the room behind the crawler lair.

Now the statutes in the throne room are pretty pointless if they just attack, so I made them into a a puzzle.  Two Bad used to control the statutes  to impress visitors using a control crown on the throne.  A wisdom check is required to operate, but if it works the players have some mean allies they can use against the goblins within the throne room.

Lastly there's a standard secret door to a hidden cubby hole treasury.

Now Treasure

Everywhere yellow has treasure.  The goblins and the crawlers have obvious minor treasure.  The crawlers are hanging around by the supplies of the Scientist Expedition and also the map this adventure is designed to find.   The goblins have some hides in plain view and a butterfly collection hidden in their bedding.  The statute trap in the throne room has obvious treasure in the form of the animated statutes' eight 50GP gem eyes (they are each two headed deer), but fighting 8HD of two1D8 attacks per round automaton ain't worth 400GP to a first level party.

Simple treasure to pick up and grab can be found in 4th or 5th level of the tower, a reasonable haul of treasure in the wizard's quarters and an old repeating crossbow in the guardroom.

Hidden treasure including some potions are to be found in the trashed lab on the 1st floor and the treasure in the basement is protected by the gas trap in the coffins. Also a tiny chance of incidental treasure in the wrecked equipment on Level 3.  I used a random table to determine this treasure.

This is my basic practice - monsters have territory and interactions with each other where appropriate.  Treasure, puzzles and traps are environmentally appropriate as best I can make them.


  1. Good read. The "by example" format is welcome change from pages of theory and practice I've been reading elsewhere.

    1. Thanks - I think the theory is in there, but I covered most of it in a couple of blog posts earlier. I think those got pretty wonky.