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.