So, this blog post is gonna get a bit heady and we’re gonna move into some deep-think spaces. I’m also gonna reference several blog posts, YouTube videos, and books you may or not be familiar with. That’s ok, I promise to give the title and author, and trust that you are capable of searching out this info if so desired for a more rounded and complete understanding of my thought processes.
So, like most of the things that provoke me to scream into the void, someone in one of my various social-media groups made a complaint the other day. It was about dungeons, and specifically about megadungeons, which are a personal favorite.
So, their complaint was on megadungeons effectively being... procedurally generated or non-sensical in nature. I disagree with them heavily based off my own experiences with dungeon play, which is my favorite kind of D&D adventure. Not to say that I cannot or do not see where they are coming from. I think that for those who have taken the barest steps into dungeon creation (filling an underground labyrinth with monsters and traps before turning the party loose upon it) it can leave certain players perplexed. Asking not the usual questions of “what do they eat?” or “where do they poop?” or “how did these owlbears eat so much gold and +1 swords?”, but rather “why?”. Why the dungeon? Why are the monsters in this room? Why are goblins green (or orange)? And most likely “why doesn’t this make sense? What is missing?”
Now you may certainly be saying “Oh CryptThing! This is a simple matter is dungeon-ecology! And giving your dungeon and monsters an appropriate backstory!” But I think it is far from that. It is a matter of dungeon-ecology from a narrative viewpoint, but also a matter to be handled from a Game Board view, and also a matter of (likely) boring numerical combat for room after room with rolling dice to find and eliminate traps and search empty rooms rather than using descriptions to achieve the appropriate details to get adventurers to investigate.
A lot, and I mean a LOT of stuff has been written and said about Dungeon Ecology. Ben at Questing Beast on YouTube has a lovely series of videos he’s working on now and goes into detail on the subject, and it’s been outlined in the dungeon and Megadungeon videos by WebDM and Nerdarchy as well, all available for free online.
From a narrative standpoint, a room full of goblins has to have at least three, if not four other rooms. This goblins have to eat, sleep, shit, and occupy their time somehow. Not every monster is comfortable living in its own droppings, like a penned in rat. Not every monster just kills and eats adventurers (ok, maybe some dragons do, but only some!) all day with no vegetables. And beyond undead monsters don’t just sit waiting for adventurers for eternity. Monsters, like NPCs, should have wants, needs, loves, and hates. For a lot of NPCs, I improv it. For some though (even minor ones) I write down at least what my monsters want and love, so that I know what to do if Characters interact with them. So a good example is like this:
“Fartfang the Goblin
Imagine the two smelliest people you know and imagine they ate runny eggs and raw garlic for lunch and are the size of a toddler, but skinny, green, and cranky.
Loves: stinky cheese, picked eggs, colorful bugs and trinkets, little knives, raw meat, limericks, secret doors, friends, sugary foods, the color red
Wants: To find his way out of the lair of the Weeping Minotaur, to make new friends, to play pranks on adults, red paint, to play hide and seek, to prank adults”
And like, this is just a random NPC. He’s not a leader of a group, who may or may not be concerned with their group as a whole. But you should think of them that way. Also, this isn’t new advice, but if your referee struggles here, I suggest asking leading questions to try to garner more information out of them.
The next bit is trickier. We’ve talked about traps before, and how I think they should be treated as puzzles, for the variance in challenge that they provide for the players at your table. For more information on that, see my blog post “Your Puzzles Need A Bypass” and for examples see my post “Three Traps”. If every trap you have is a poison needle in a door or a tripwire that requires perception to notice, I’d say you’re handling traps wrong.
I’ve also written about combat encounters before, and how to keep them fresh and interesting. But the big take-away there was from (the most excellent and recommended) The Tome of Adventure Design by Frog God Games: combat encounters are only ever as fun as they are game-boards. This doesn’t have to be done with minis, it can be done with theater of the mind. My prior examples of “ten goblins in an empty room” and “ten goblins riding giant wasps as you have to climb a lattice-work wall” still stands.
Here’s the kicker where things get complex: you have to combine those ideas for some (at least your core) rooms. Meaning that, for a good, interesting dungeon, a regular number of rooms must be filled with weird terrain and interesting combat. I’d even go so far as to say, “the more you give your players to interact with, the more likely they are to get creative, and thus have fun.”
The real trick here is that this requires you to have a little improv flexibility, sound referee calls, and the ability to encourage and reward off-character sheet thinking. This can lead to a dilemma I call “The Feast Hall Fight”, where every time I set up a feasting hall for my players to fight in, it immediately goes to swords and spells and players running around the tables instead of jumping on them or under them, or kicking food into the face of enemies. It never turns into a damned food fight with the barbarian kicking plates into hobgoblin faces like a 90s high-school show. These are basically two sides of the same coin: one being a lack of things to interact with within the world, the other being a lack of interacting with the world and just interacting with the system.
This is further complicated in that these combined skills must and will be tested more as you add in other elements to the dungeon. Dungeons and megadungeons will feel more real and more alive if you include factions and NPCs and include traps/puzzles and fully flesh out the inside of the area you’re planning.
“But Crypt Thing!” You cry, “That’s literally just one extra step and then the rest of usual world-building!” Yes. Exactly. I think that’s the problem is that people don’t too often view the dungeon as it’s own world, or a microcosm. And the crux of the matter is that a lot of dungeons are just caves with giant rats rather than separate fantastic realities.
I think that dungeons should have a holistic approach to their design. Goblin Punch’s “Dungeon Checklist” is mandatory for dungeons. I also think the design approaches in Patrick Stuart’s “Silent Titans” is another damn fine example of holistic dungeon design.
Here’s what I really think is the root cause of boring games for other players: people design the games the way they play them. And I don’t think this is good or works well. I think part of that holistic design process is stepping out of your shell and making things in a way that thinks differently than you do.
Firm Opinion: Good games are designed so that players that have fun or interact with the game in a different way than the designer are capable of having fun. You need to make your games fun for everyone.
That goes for dungeons too.
When I’m working on my current megadungeon, as I design encounters, I already have a step on my list of “make sure to include tactical engagement” because I have a friend who thinks tactically. I have a friend who loves to solve puzzles, so including those is pertinent to my design. I asked my friends what they wanted to see in my Megadungeon, and one told me “a love story” so I have one of those in there. Another said “a true friend” and there’s definitely the potential for those in there.
The idea of the above examples is that, as a referee, I’m thinking of my players wants and how they choose to interact with the game first. And I think this is the key element to being a good Dungeon Master, or referee, or whatever you call yourself.