So, my campaign has no set “theme” for what the players will be facing. This is a double edged sword. On the one hand I could throw a wyvern at the players one week. Goblin raiders the next week. And wrap up the month with a murder mystery involving creatures from beyond reality. But on the other hand I have no guiding light on what to use. No pre-built encounters, no dungeon layouts, I have to make everything.
So yeah, I have to design every map, every encounter, every twist and turn. That level of freedom is both liberating and terrifying. Because I can make whatever I want, but if it goes poorly I am the only one to blame. It is also terrifying because I have no limits on what I can use, except those I impose on myself.
limits make things better
If I approached each dungeon with truly no limits on what I could use I would never get anything done. Two things come to mind in this regard, the first being “analysis paralysis”. Analysis paralysis is when you have so many choices you could make and spend so much time debating them, that you never actually do any of them. With no limits, the number of possibilities becomes overwhelming. So limits help narrow down those possibilities.
The other saying that comes to mind is this “an artist’s greatest nemesis is a blank canvas”. The meaning is very similar to “analysis paralysis” but slightly more specific. The hardest part of a project is often starting the project, once you get going you pick up momentum, things fall into place. You might hit snags that bring things to a grinding halt, but getting started again won’t be as hard as when the canvas was blank. And limitations can, if constructed correctly, be the first brush strokes on an otherwise blank canvas.
My limitations for a given dungeon can be almost anything. Restrict the setting to a classical castle dungeon, a cave, a forest, or a noble’s mansion. What types of enemies show up in the setting? Goblins? Skeletons? Mimics? All valid options, but I need to pick one as a starting point. Maybe even just a theme. Like illusions, labyrinth, battle gauntlet, or even murder mystery.
don’t have do do it alone
One thing I have been planning basically from the word go, is for my players to have some input on this process. Not in the actual design of the maps and monster placement of course. But in what shows up. My intention is to have them all write down things they want to have show up in dungeons, themes they want to encounter, and some enemy types they want to fight. For example I might get puzzles, gothic horror, and goblins from Player A. Player B might give me traps, survival gauntlet, and fat Dragons. While Player C could give me illusions, nature, and slimes. And I could mix and match them as I saw fit, or even include ideas of my own. The idea is to get a starting point and to give the players a sense of investment.