So, you’ve got an idea for a dungeon to send the party to but aren’t sure where to start in the design process. Whether you draw up plans the old fashioned way with pen and paper or use a computer program, it can be difficult to get the layout you want for a dungeon.
Or your artistic skills are lacking and drawing anything is void of any detail. We’ve got a simple fix to make developing the look of your next dungeon a breeze.
Here’s a quick guide to dungeon design
Imitation is the Best Form of Flattery
Taking inspiration from real world places or fictional media is a great starting point. This also works with quest ideas. One of the main sources of influence I look to is video games. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is probably my main focus when it comes to creating a dungeon for my Dungeons & Dragons party.
Pulling from your favorite video game is one of the best and easiest ways to get ideas flowing. Some of my inspiration is take from Dragon Age: Inquisition, Fallout, and Zelda as well.
Let’s take Skyrim for example. The world is full of tombs and dusty web filled catacombs. You can use any of its barrows as a stepping stone to create your own in D&D. You can either look up the map for the specific area you want to build off of or play through it yourself first so you get a better feel for it.
After fully exploring the dungeon, you can view the map in its entirety. From there you can draw it in a notebook or take a picture of it and use it when the group begins their exploration. This will help give you the overall look of the dungeon but fleshing it out with monsters and items is a whole other story.
Copying and pasting the map from a dungeon is a viable option. But sometimes certain features don’t translate well to the tabletop. For instance, one of the most recent maps I pulled from was Skyrim’s Kilkreath Ruins.
The party was heading into a temple of shadow and I wanted to use light as the main feature of the dungeon. This worked great as the ruins already used light to direct a path but it still wasn’t quite what I needed. So, I had to improvise to make it fit with the story I wanted to tell. This can be one of the biggest issues dungeon master’s can find with building a dungeon.
Change and Adapt
Knowing the tale you want to tell is important. Of course, you could always just put every monster, trap, and item from a Skyrim cave. But if you want a dungeon that reflects a certain enemy or design, try to search for dungeons with that in mind.
The majority of Skyrim’s catacombs can be boiled down to draugr and dragon priests. In D&D terms, this roughly translates to zombies, skeletons, and a higher powered wight or ghoul. By knowing what the head monster is in your dungeon, you can build around it. Once the design is complete, use the prebuilt model to better suit your lead monster or creature.
Items like books and tomes can also help you in the build process. If the original cavern has a book about torture, maybe the main villain is practiced in maiming and capturing adventurers instead of outright killing them. This could also change certain rooms in the dungeon. Instead of a door hiding a small bedroom it could lead to a torture chamber instead. It’s all about improvising and adapting.
Also, if there’s a door somewhere on the original map and you don’t want it there, move it or take it away. That room can be used for another dungeon if you need it later. Imagine yourself as the minotaur and the dungeon you’re building is your maze. The map can shift and change. If you think a room is better flipped on its side, then give it a go.
Whether it’s your first dungeon or your 100th, the design process can be difficult to manage. Pulling from video games or fiction and even real world locations is quick and simple. The next time you need to put together a cavern, tomb, or dungeon, don’t think too hard about it. And once you’re finished with the setup, having the right music as the party explore is always a bonus.