“Okay, who’s gonna be the mapper this game?”
Back In The Day™, there were not a lot of players willing to raise their hand and accept this honorable task. Dungeon maps – especially homemade ones – were often sprawling affairs that took up several pages of graph paper carefully taped together and folded in such a fashion as to rival the best origami artists.
Of course, there was a good reason for this. The original AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide told us that it had to be that way. How could you look upon tables and tables of random dungeon generating goodness and NOT create a sprawling mega-dungeon? The answer: you couldn’t.
I mean, I suppose there were a few of us who might have had some education about Egyptian crypts, Mayan tombs, or European catacombs, but Back In The Day™, we didn’t have easy access to that information. Instead, we followed our dice, and laying out sheet after sheet of graph paper, we rolled out and sketched out our players’ dooms.
But let’s skip ahead a few editions of the game. Between AD&D and the 5th Edition, there was much less emphasis on the mega-dungeon concept. Dungeon Masters were taught that logic dictates the adventure environment, and unless you were in some deliberately chaotic place, dungeons should follow logical, concise design. Dungeons cost money, after all, and your evil lich (warlord, hobgoblin despot, dwarf lord) wouldn’t spend hundreds of gold on a sixty foot tunnel, when a twenty foot tunnel would do. This made sense, and with access to an internet of knowledge about how humans have been digging into the earth and constructing strongholds, we took this advice to heart.
Now here comes the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and with it, a whole dwarven ore-cart load of random tables in order to generate – you guessed it – mega dungeons. However, there is a difference now, and I think the designers have finally hit upon the proper way to utilize the incredible imaginative power that’s locked into these tables.
Put down the straight-edge and pencil for a moment though, and I’ll clarify.
If you look through the relevant sections of the 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, you’ll realize right off that the tables have purpose. I mean this literally, as one of the first tables you encounter is the purpose of your dungeon. Is it a tomb? Is it a portal? Is it a deathtrap? (I love this term). They’re all on a table and ready to be rolled up. From there you can actually choose who built the structure, who runs it, and even important events that might have happened in the dungeon before your players came along to disinfect it.
But wait! That’s not all! There is also an entire additional section that’s devoted to just generating random dungeons. While I’ve not done a table by table comparison, even my faulty memory found these tables very similar to the ones in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. Rolling handfuls of dice, you can actually map out your dungeon as you go – corridors, rooms, traps, and monsters all appearing magically on the graph paper in true random fashion.
While that might be fun for some, I’m going to show you how the tables should probably be used – not as a random generation of spaces, scratched into existence like a cat playing Minecraft, but instead, as creativity generators that can be applied to a thoughtful and consistent design.
As will happen pretty awesome in this column, I’ll relate my observations of the 5th Edition with experiences from my own campaign. Following the steps below can guide you through the maze of tables that are just begging to be rolled upon. IMPORTANT NOTE – these steps are mainly useful when working on dungeons for your campaign. If you’re running a deliberate weird one-off adventure, or something unusual, disregard this information and enjoy the clatter of your dice. Barring that, though, you might take the following three simple steps into consideration:
Step 1 – Before you even look at the random dungeon stuff, read the section on Dungeons in Chapter 5 – Adventure Environments. While these are presented to the player as random tables – DON’T DO THAT. Instead, think about the area you’re playing in. Utilize the choices presented, but don’t roll it randomly. Consider your campaign, and set your dungeon’s location (as well as its history, creator, and purpose) appropriately. You won’t want to leave that to random chance, as later adventures in the same area could easily end up conflicting with what’s been already established.
Step 2 (optional) – The 5th Edition has done something neat with dungeon design and that was the classification of dungeons into different types, which they refer to as “Purpose”. Consider the major intelligent species (past and present) in your campaign. Maybe certain species created certain types of dungeons. I’ve taken a page from Skyrim on this. In that game, the “ancient dungeon” type areas are reserved for the dragon priests, while the “smooth city-like” dungeon areas are reserved for the dwarves and have an entirely different look. I did this with my own campaign, assigning certain species with certain dungeon types and it’s working well. Note – it’s quite possible that an entire class of dungeons was left behind on your world by a totally extinct species. That’s okay, and a really cool idea! Again, this step is optional, but it does help keep your dungeon ideas classified.
Step 3 – Use the tables in Appendix A to generate your dungeon – NOT in a linear way, but to generate a range of elements that you can then fit together in a logical pattern. Give yourself only so many dice rolls. Then, with each roll, write down what you get. After you’ve finished with your rolls, place the pieces together in a pattern that makes sense. Remember, that unless the builders of your dungeons were plagued with architectural insanity, the dungeon layout should be a logical plan. Dungeons should have proper exits, easy ways to get to different areas, access to water, etc. Now that’s not to say that portions of the finished dungeon could be collapsed, flooded, overcome with lava, etc, or even be incorporated into natural underground caverns – but the basic layout should make sense.
And hey, that’s it! Those three simple steps and two chapters in the 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide give you all the tools you’ll need to create dungeon after compelling dungeon. As a bonus, if you assigned certain types of creators to certain types of dungeons, it gives your players something to expect, allowing for proper planning and at least an assumption that they’re prepared to face their doom.
Of course, you know better.
Photo credit: rbenada