Creating Dungeons Revisted

So, back here again. With my campaign having started I figured I would write about making dungeons. Firstly for my own benefit in getting my thoughts straight. Secondly because other people might find it useful or interesting. And thirdly because I now have actually made a full dungeon rather than the simple one shot “dungeons” I made previously.

Step 1: Theme

The first step in making a dungeon (or adventure) is to figure out a theme. Taking my first dungeon for example, I actually started by designing an encounter. The encounter was based on the idea of constructs that blended into the environment (living statues, animated items, etc.). When I started expanding the idea into a full dungeon I needed a unifying theme. At first I went with “constructs” but there simply were not enough constructs (of an appropriate difficulty) to populate the dungeon. So I got creative, and re-flavored some things into constructs. But that only took me so far.

I needed a theme change. And then it hit me: Museum. The constructs make sense there as displays and guards both. And it opened me up to a few other things I could use. Now I had some elementals rooming a laboratory that some archeologists… found, and brought back. A few sentient constructs were hard to justify, until they were trapped in the museum by some unseen curator.

Step 2: Populating the Dungeon

As you might have surmised, these steps are not as sequential as I would like. But the idea still stands. After you know what your dungeon is about, you need things to go in it. The first part of this step is figuring out the encounters the players will face. In my case the flow of the dungeon would go something like this:
1. An initial encounter upon entering the museum.
2. Learning they need a pair of keys to open a large door.
3. Going on one of two branching paths. With at least one encounter along the way.
4. Puzzle to get the key. (With possible combat encounter if they “cheat” the puzzle)
5. Repeat for other side.
6. Final encounter in the treasure room.

So I needed an initial encounter (already made). Two encounters for each branch (four in total). An encounter for “cheating” on the puzzle (repeatable between the two puzzles). And a final encounter (also already made).

How I did it

And I got to work. The three of the four branch encounters where fairly simple, with the final one taking the longest to figure out. The “punishment” encounter was tricky, but a small reskin of an existing monster got me where I wanted to be. And we were almost done. Until I had one more idea.

Even with two puzzles this dungeon felt a little combat heavy, so I added a non-combat encounter. It is a creature from non-official sources that I just love the idea of: the “treasure weasel”. It presents itself as an unsolvable problem with the promise of treasure at the end. This way the adventures will keep trying to get the loot, but get more frustrated as time goes on. And that is the point, in lore these creatures feed on frustration. But once sated, these creatures also gladly give up the treasure they are guarding. Putting this back in the main hall, that they have to pass through several times, makes it unavoidable. And I have all the encounters for my dungeon.

Step 3: Set Dressing

This is the step I am still worst at. I need a description for each room and the kinds of things they find in there. So far I have gotten away with improv skills of “making it up as I go along”, but I need to think this stuff out more in the future. Some of the descriptions I have given were:
“Impossibly swirling marble walls, as if the marble was sculpted from clay”
“Benches made of copper”
“A stone slab bench made from an impossible fusion of obsidian and ivory”
And “Giant stone doors designed to rise into the ceiling”
So I think I am doing alright in the improv department… but I would rather not rely on it too much if I can avoi9d it.

Player Backstories as the DM

Recently my Dungeons and Dragons group had a “Session Zero” for my upcoming campaign. We set some ground rules for the game (off limits topics, basic play loop, house rules) and started character creation. And with characters come backstories. Backstories that I have to read, approve, and figure out how they fit into the world we are all crafting.

Step1: Compiling Stories

So, of course, the first step in this process is for my players to come up with stories for their characters. But that does not mean I am totally uninvolved. As players begin crafting their stories they sometimes run the drafts past me. And as I read them I give suggestions on how to mold them. On rare occasion I have to tell my players no, but usually I try to use improv rules when making my suggestions. Not a hard no, but a “have you considered…?” or a “What if we tried it like this?”

On the one occasion I needed to squash a player’s story I did try to salvage as much of it as I could. But the player had a case of what I call “main character syndrome”. This is where their story is so big and bombastic, so large and important, that it overshadows everything else. And like the main character in most stories, the entire story becomes about resolving their conflict.

As I said, I tried to salvage important bits and pieces of their idea. Introduce elements of uncertainty so that I could play with a few things behind the scene, but ultimately that idea was scrapped. When they came back with a second idea, I at first balked at the mechanics their story implied, but then shared a similar (but simpler) story I had used in the past and they loved it. And so they still get to be the main character of their story, but not of the story.

Step 2: How do These Fit Together?

The next thing I asked my players to do, once they had their backstories decided, was to establish at least one positive connection with another player character. This way these characters are not complete strangers when they first meet, at least some of them know each other.

My work on this step is seeing how any extra characters from my player’s backstories can fit into the world I have made. Most don’t need an immediate answer but a few are going to be in the main community and so I need to figure out how to integrate them.

Step 3: Figure Out What Threads I Can Pull

Once I have all the backstories (or even just backstory elements that aren’t going to change) I begin figuring out how to weave them into stories. I have been running one shots within the setting and have been dropping hints for at least one (and a half now) character’s backstories. Another character has an easy way to introduce character elements (I just have to decide what they mean).

What I am saying is that Step 3 is where I get to have fun figuring out how to torture my players with the tools they gave me. And how to reward them for making good stories.