Monsterous Monday – Where I Ramble About Things Like Dungeon Design

What do you get when the half-formed ideas you’ve been bouncing around in your head collide with your self-imposed timetable-blog-post-deadline-thing? I’m not sure, but we’re about to find out!

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how Dungeons and Dragons has evolved over its long history into its current iteration. I’m well aware that this is a topic that you could just about fill the Grand Canyon with so, more specifically, I’ve been thinking about how monsters and dungeons have evolved to reinforce and guide the style of play that the game encourages. And make no mistake – the game does encourage a fairly specific style of play – one that is very different today than it was in the olden days.

Something that should be readily apparent to anyone who’s spent any amount of time playing or studying any version of Dungeons and Dragons that was published by TSR is that the game today is much less adversarial than it use to be. In those early dungeon crawls, the wit and ingenuity of the players was very much being pitted against the guile and cunning of the dungeon master in a much more upfront way.  The dungeon was a deadly puzzle designed by the dungeon master for the players to solve, and missteps were unforgiving and often lethal. The dungeon master necessarily had numerous advantages in this contest of one against many, but his omnipotence was held in check by a combination of  game rules and a gentleman’s agreement that whatever obstacles the dungeon master threw at the players could be overcome with the right choices, actions, and perhaps a few lucky dice rolls.

“But wait,” you cry! “Isn’t all that still true?”

To an extent, yes, but the focus of the game has shifted dramatically away from that adversarial design philosophy towards a heavy emphasis on balance. Please don’t get me wrong – I think this is a wonderful thing. I’m happy that there are charts and tables that (more or less) give us an idea of how many monsters of a given type will make for a challenging encounter, and how many such encounters a given party can reasonably face in an adventuring day. I like the whole idea of the adventuring day as a concept, and how it gives us a reasonable idea of how much progress a party can make in a day.

“Well,” you say, “if you’re so in love with all of this balance then what’s the problem?”

Excellent question.

Here and there, I’ve seen some complaints about how easy the game is these days, and not “how it use to be.” I’ve seen frustrated dungeon masters asking for advice for how to challenge their players, and complaining about how powerful characters are or how easy encounters are. I think part of the problem is that somewhere along the way we got so caught up in being fair and balanced that we got away from being adversarial. And I’m not talking about being adversarial in a petty, heavy-handed, or malicious way, but in a way that forces players to outwit the dungeon instead of just out muscling it.

For you see, in the more adversarial dungeon design philosophy of yesteryear, the dungeon itself was almost a sentient thing that was actively trying to kill you, hampering your progress and punishing your carelessness at every turn. There was an understanding that the dungeon master had designed the dungeon with every intention of killing you unless you were smart enough to defeat him – and his dungeon. This doesn’t mean that you should place insurmountable obstacles in the path of your players – I’m not advocating that you throw an ancient dragon at a third level party here – it means that you should make your dungeons lethal places that deserved respect.

It also means that you should exert some control over when and how the adventuring day ends, because here is what happens: you carefully plan out the number of encounters that the adventurers can get through in a day – maybe you’re even feeling nice and throw in a spot where the players can grab a short rest in the middle of the action – and then your party runs in, throws everything they have at the first two out of five encounter – obliterating them – and then they retreat and call it a day. What the hell just happened? You had a nice adventuring day with five encounters all planned out and then your players showed up and ruined it all. Don’t let them do that.

Design your dungeons in such a way that a frontal assault – where tactics that involve no more planning than throwing your hit points and armor class at a target – just won’t work. I’m thinking here about dungeons like the Caves of Chaos and the hill giant steading in Against the Giants. In these dungeons, a frontal assault would almost always bring nearby reinforcements, and parties that didn’t plan their approach carefully would quickly get bogged down and  find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of opponents that their recklessness brought against them.

Another strategy for making your dungeons more lethal is to throw in traps and monsters that punish the unwary. Here is the catch though: don’t factor these things into your “adventuring day.” Since all of the damage that these things cause can be avoided, the dungeon should be designed with the assumption that the players, clever as they are, will avoid these obstacles if they hope to be successful. Monsters like green slime, brown mold, and yellow mold (you won’t find them in the Monster Manual, they are now in the DMG on page 105 under “Dungeon Hazards”) are excellent in this capacity; so are dangerous but generally avoidable threats like gelatinous cubes. Little used routes through your dungeon that bypass the more high traffic areas are great places for this sort of threat.

One final way to control the length and difficulty of the adventuring day is to simply block the party’s path of retreat. Use shifting corridors to block exits, or have fireballs trigger cave-ins. Place a false door in your dungeon that, when opened, drops a portcullis across the path to the exit (thanks for that trick, moathouse). Make the entrance to your dungeon accessible only by rappelling fifty feet down a chasm – have fun climbing out of that mess with a horde of bow-wielding goblins on your tail (spoiler alert: a returning raiding party cut those ropes anyway before using the secret entrance that the players never searched for to return to their lair). One of my favorite tricks involves blocking the exit to the dungeon with carrion crawlers. Players are always leaving piles of corpses behind them, and what better way to deal with corpses than with the untimely appearance of potentially lethal scavengers blocking the line of retreat?

It’s your dungeon, and there’s no reason why it can’t be lethal and fair. Just make sure that there are good reasons why things are the way they are, and always give your players reasonable chances to make the choices (and skill checks) they need to make to survive.


2 thoughts on “Monsterous Monday – Where I Ramble About Things Like Dungeon Design

  1. I guess I have a very different philosophy about dungeon design. I don’t like the adversarial DM vs players idea but when I plan a dungeon I don’t have a group of players in mind. I’m not thinking about a fair and balanced dungeon. When taking the role of a monster I try to have them act in the way that seems natural to them. Thus, a hobgoblin lair will be well fortified with traps and will have a plan to respond quickly to attacks. Gnolls are lazy and will not have a plan or coordinated defense.

    In my dungeon, rarely higher level monsters are found within the upper levels, nearer the dungeon entrance, with the expectation that characters will sometimes have to flee encounters. This doesn’t steal agency from the PCs, unless they are the type that would never consider running away as a possibility. Maybe they will get the hint when their hirelings and henchmen start failing morale checks and bolting.

    You have a couple of good ideas about limiting the ‘short work day’ problem. I have never actually encountered this in play with the people I play with. Maybe we are just too greedy. The first solution that occurred to me however, was to introduce rival delvers. If the PCs just explore one of two rooms per trip to the dungeon, then they stand the chance that rival delvers will get the treasure while they are recovering and reveling in town. Let the party experience several rooms that have been recently looted and maybe they will change their behavior.

  2. When I see complaints from dungeon masters about the game being to easy for the players, I think they are guilty of pulling punches and in general underestimating the ability and ingenuity of their players. They’re probably also making too many assumptions about how and in what order their encounters will be tackled. I also assume they are mostly newer dungeon masters, who may never have experienced things like delving the Tomb of Horrors or throwing themselves Against the Giants.

    In advocating a more “adversarial” approach, what I’m really trying to say is that you shouldn’t be afraid to throw in things that sometimes don’t seem “fair,” like difficult traps or monsters that require more than brawn to overcome. I’m also saying that you should use your brain when designing your dungeons, with the expectation that your players will need to use theirs to overcome the challenges you set before them. This approach also includes following your suggestion about taking on the role of the monsters when designing your dungeons, and not being afraid to be as devious and clever as those monsters would be.

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