Designing a Dungeon: Part 5—Room Building

In the fifth installment of our series on designing a new dungeon crawl adventure for the patrons of the World of Aetaltis Patreon, we outline the contents of each room in our dungeon.

PREVIOUSLY, ON DESIGNING A DUNGEON...

Step 1: We talked about choosing a map. Maps are really fun to draw, but there are times when you want something that's ready to go. In this case, I picked a cool map from Dyson Logos available in in his map pack on DriveThruRPG.

Step 2: We came up with the original purpose of the adventure site. After a bit of back and forth I settled on a dwarven Diplomatic Entrance to a Deepland Hall. After that I came up with a rough idea of what all those cool rooms were used for when first built.

Step 3: We picked out the major threats our players will face, settling on some kobolds, a party of filthy bandits, and a big nasty troll.

Step 4: In 'How It Came to Be' we put together a history for our ruin that we can use to guide us as we start fleshing out the rooms.

Step 5: Room Building

It's time to decide what goes in all those rooms! I'm going to take a second to number the rooms. This may not be our final numbering scheme, but it will let us stay organized for now.

A Note on Room Numbering

You're building a tool for a GM, so number the rooms in an order that the players might explore them. This will help the GM to avoid flipping between pages trying to find the right entry.

Also, try to group the rooms logically. In this adventure we'll want to make sure that the bandit rooms, the kobold rooms, and the troll lair rooms are grouped numerically.

Again, despite the amount of creative work that goes into dungeon design, it's still a tool at heart. The easier the tool is to use, the easier it is for the GM (even if it's you) to run a great game and the more likely it is everyone will love exploring the dungeon you designed.

Building With Purpose: A Room Making Philosophy

Allow me to draw on the wisdom of that one unnecessary filmmaking class I took in college: If it doesn't have a story purpose, it doesn't belong in the film - or in this case, the dungeon.

Making a dungeon for a roleplaying game isn't an exercise in fantastic simulation. It's the creation of a setting that drives a narrative. Even seemingly simple goals like "clear the dungeon" need some form of driving narrative to fully engage the players.

That isn't to say that there isn't a place for things like realism or "just 'cause it's cool" stuff. The thing is, you can add realism and still have purpose. For instance, realism for realism's sake is often dull, but using realism because NOT being realistic in a specific situation would break the players' suspension of disbelief is an example of realism with purpose.

As for "just because it's cool", cool without purpose is just novelty--fluff without meaning. If, however, you use something really cool to create a sense of awe and wonder in your players at just the right moment, suddenly adding something cool has purpose in the overall narrative experience.

Attempting to adhere to this philosophy may force you to drop some cool things or realistic elements you really love, but the end result will be a stronger game and narrative experience that will make the adventure way more fun for the players.

Okay! It's time to do an outline of what we're putting in the rooms (writing the full room descriptions is the next step!) We won't trudge through all 31 rooms, but let's take a look at a couple.

 

ROOM 1: THE RUINED KEEP

What's the purpose of this room in the narrative? This location sets the stage for the entire adventure. It's also the place where the players leave the realm of safety and plunge into the unknown. We want to create a sense of tension, purpose, and excitement here.

We also want to address questions the players are likely to ask or actions they're likely to take. It's good to reward the players for the ideas they come up with, particularly at this stage of the adventure. If we shoot them down now (nope, nope, nope) it undermines their confidence and sense of heroic competence. As we said, the purpose is to set the stage for the adventure, and this includes framing the characters as cool, competent heroes.

With that in mind, here is an outline of what I'd like to include in ROOM 1:

  • Ruins that indicate the age of the site.
  • Clues that will potentially lead characters to determine the origin of the site.
  • Evidence of who lives here today in the form of dropped items and tracks.
  • Entrances that convey a sense of mystery and foreboding.
  • Ambiguity over which of the two entrances is the right one to immediately create a sense of tension.
  • Proof they're in the right place depending on what brought them here. If the goal is treasure, they find a coin. If it's a rescue, they discover a hint the person they are looking for is here.
  • Realistic excuse for why, if someone is inside, they wouldn't notice/hear the characters out here.

 

One down! Let's look at another example...

 

ROOM 4: BANDITS' COMMON ROOM

This room (along with rooms 4 and 5) provide the first hints of what the players can expect to face in this adventure. It should also give them reasons to push deeper into the ruins.

  • A mix of enemies highlighting that the bandits are more than just a bunch of fighters.
  • A clue that there may be treasure somewhere below.
  • Evidence that there are kobolds in the ruin.
  • Reasons for the players to believe they can have a fight in this room without alerting the rest of the complex.
  • Some immediate treasure rewards to bolster player confidence and sense of victory.
  • Signs that these were Golden Scythe members, which will help illustrate the quality of the enemies the characters can expect to encounter and tells a bit of interesting backstory, creating a setting that is more immersive than "bunch of guys in a room with swords."
  • Immediate opportunities to take the adventure in a non-violent direction if that is what the players want.
  • Clear evidence that the bandits are really terrible people so the players know that killing the bandits (should they choose to) is not immoral.
  • An interesting physical combat environment that makes the battle more than just a dull hack-and-slash.
  • A few pointed individual motivations and characteristics for the bandits that make them more than just cardboard cutouts.
  • Note that for both of these rooms, we aren't necessarily throwing everything at the players. We're simply making sure that the elements exist. Some bits might demand a check or action on the part of the players, and others we could weave into the description.

 

Definitely a more complicated room, but it doesn't take a lot to deliver on the different elements. A subtle clue can work as well as spelling it out for the players. We'll get into that more next time.

Ok, one last room...

 

ROOM 19: EMPTY BED CHAMBER

So what's the purpose of an empty room? In this case I want to suggest that the setting is alive, even when the players aren't around. I also want to use this room to drop hints that might come in handy during a negotiation with the kobolds. Here is what I'll want to include here:

  • Proof of past kobold habitation.
  • Evidence that says no one has used this room in some time.
  • Offerings or other hints that both suggest a bad fate for the kobolds that once lived here AND highlight the social structure (mourning of the dead) that exists among this particular set of kobolds.

 

So even an empty room can have purpose. Here are some other ways you can give empty rooms purpose:

  • To highlight a sense of emptiness and abandonment.
  • To drop hints about the story of the site.
  • To reinforce a sense of unease if the room seems like it SHOULDN'T be empty.
  • To hint at problems with the safety or stability of the complex.

There are just a few examples, but you shouldn't have to stretch to make something up. If you can't come up with a good purpose, remove the room. Empty rooms for the sake of realism or because you just don't have a use for them will slow the game, dishearten the players, and may even lead the players to start making up their own, incorrect theories for the room's purpose that derails the narrative.

I'm going to go back and finish outlining the rest of the rooms. Next time we'll talk about writing read-aloud descriptions for the rooms.

If you missed Part 4 in this series, you can find it here.

Marc Tassin is the creator of the World of Aetaltis and the founder of Mechanical Muse. He's been gaming since 1985, and he's also a published author and game designer. He's had the opportunity to write for some of his favorite RPG products over the years, including Shadowrun and Dragon Magazine. You can find him at Gen Con every year, usually lurking about near the Exhibit Hall or the Writer's Symposium rooms! To support his Aetaltis patreon, just click here!

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  • Cartography by Dyson Logos

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