Dungeon design in Dungeons and Dragons is hands down one of the most fun aspects of being a Dungeon Master. With it comes the challenge of designing fun dungeons that engage all three pillars of play; exploration, roleplay and combat. We are joined by Matt Whitby, podcaster, Dmsguild writer and youtuber. Together we discuss what goes into making a fantastic dungeon for your characters to explore.
On today's show...
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Main Topic: Dungeon Design w/Matt Whitby
Matt, for those who don’t already know you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do in the world of Roleplaying Games?
What is the overall theme you’re looking for in your dungeon? A temple of fire? One in a floating castle? In the Astral Sea? This is the first step in dungeon design. What do you want to build?
Locations should make sense for the theme you’re going for. (Though sometimes you can make a cool exception). A fire temple isn’t generally gonna be at the bottom of the ocean. If it’s too close to a city, then why hasn’t it already been looted? The location can set the tone as well as some of the other details such as monsters, traps and hazards.
Who built the dungeon? The creators often have a vast difference in design and approach. A dungeon designed by dwarves is likely to be massive and grandiose, while a dungeon built by elves may take place inside an enormous hollowed-out tree. Much like location, the creators can help you develop the correct descriptions to enhance the game through the player's senses.
Why was it built? Once again, the why the dungeon exists adds to the flavor, lore and overall aesthetic of the dungeon. A temple built to worship a Dragonborn god will probably be chock full of lore and history of the Dragonborn written in draconic and is likely to have many traps to keep out visitors. But a collection of caverns and tunnels built by kobolds around the dragon they worship is likely to be stockpiled with traps to stop you from gaining access to their gods hoard.
Adding a short history to the dungeon can help flesh out its contents. Why was it abandoned? Was the creators massacred? What evidence appears on the floars to indicate that? Did the creators just one day vanish and everything was left untouched for generations, collecting dust?
What kind of creatures inhabit the dungeon? Who has moved it? A small group? An entire faction? Or is it full of monsters who just happened to wander in and make it home because it’s so desolate? The bigger the dungeon, the larger the variety can be.
Dungeons are much like biomes and have an entire ecosystem within. The creatures there must eat, sleep, drink and survive. Most creatures will make a dungeon a home that has all of these things aplenty. This means moss that the skittering insects eat, giant spiders that earth the insects, and tribal warriors that hunt the spiders for meat and thread. In a well-built dungeon, all of these connect in some way. For example, a pool of water may be the only close source of water, so the characters could wait in ambush or vise versa.
Hazards in a dungeon should certainly fit the theme. An air temple floating in the sky, falling should be the most simple of hazards, while in an underwater temple, drowning should be a concern. Flavoring your traps can be another tool to reinforce the themes of the dungeon. This can easily make each dungeon feel fresh and different.
Mix up the Challenges:
Mixing up the encounters in a dungeon is a great way beyond theme and flavor to make it fun and exciting. No one dungeon should just be combat encounters with a single type of enemy. No one dungeon should just be full of only traps or hazards. Mix it up, and when it makes sense even combine them. Roleplay opportunities should also be included, such as finding a group of adventurers who have triggered a trap and are now stuck in, and have been for weeks. Or a single survivor of a failed orc raid who is bleeding out, warning of the coming danger etc.
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Unearthed Tips and Tricks!
Misguided Cleric - Matt Whitby
“Asmodeus is evil? No, he can’t be, the scripture is misconstrued.”
Unlike all other followers of evil aligned gods, you serve them for the betterment of the world rather than cause havoc and destruction. Despite using your powers to heal and help, they come from a sinister source and why the deity chose to grant you powers remains a mystery.
You spread the teachings of your chosen deity, but try and paint all their actions as misunderstood or twist them into a positive outlook. This often leads to people distrusting you or the occasional mob once they learn of your faith. Your friends however know you for your heart of gold, merely with curious methods to save the day.
Young Purple Worm
Origin Statblock: Grick Alpha
Lost Features: Stone Camouflage, darkvision, climb, beak , tentacles
Blindsight 15 ft., tremorsense 60 ft.,
Tunneler. The worm can burrow through solid rock at half its burrow speed and leaves a 5-foot diameter tunnel in its wake.
Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +7 to hit, reach 5 feet., on target. Hit: 13 (2d8 + 4) piercing damage. If the target is a Small or smaller creature, it must succeed on a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or be swallowed by the worm. A swallowed creature is blinded and restrained, it has total cover against attacks and other effects outside the worm, and takes 10 (3d6) acid damage at the start of each of the worm’s turns.
If the worm takes 30 damage or more on a single turn from a creature inside it, the worm must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw at the end of that turn or regurgitate all swallowed creatures, which fall prone in a space within 10 feet of the worm. If the worm dies, a swallowed creature is no longer restrained by it and can escape from the corpse by using 10 feet of movement, and exiting prone.
Tail Stinger. Melee Weapon Attack: +7 to hit, reach 10 feet., one creature. Hit: 13 (2d6 +4) piercing damage and the target must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw, taking 21 (6d6) poison damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
Imposing Figure. When the worm is hit with a melee weapon attack, it can use its reaction to release an intimidating bellow at the attacker. If the target can see and hear it, it must make a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw or be frightened of the worm until the end of their next turn.
During the characters' travels through a foul, tick infested swamp, they stumble across splattered piles of blood organs and the skeletal remains of some sort of creature. A successful DC 14 Intelligence (Nature) check identifies the remains as belonging to a large worg. If the characters go looking or are able to spot DC 14 Intelligence (Investigation) or Wisdom (Perception) check they identify scattered blood in a general direction. A successful 15 Wisdom (Survival) check leads them to an opening with three dead worgs laying on the ground, panting heavily and their bodies are severely bloated. On a failed survival check, they stumble into some eyerot shrubs (CA).
A successful DC 17 Wisdom (Medicine) check confirms the worgs are already dead. The heavy panting is coming from something slithering underneath, struggling to escape. If the bloated corpses take any damage, or are disturbed in any way, they immediately each one of the three release a young purple worm (CA).
A successful DC 13 Intelligence (Nature) check confirms the creature's extremely potent and valuable toxin within its stinger. A character with the poisoner’s kit can harvest a single dose of purple worm poison with a successful DC 19 check. On a failure, the character is subjected to the poison and must make a DC 19 Constitution saving throw, taking 42 (12d6) poison damage on a failed soave, or half as much damage on a successful one.
Sword of Famine and Feasts
“A unique weapon with mirrored twin-blades. One, an obsidian black, the other as green as the mold.”
Weapon (sword), very rare (requires attunement)
You gain a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with this weapon. While attuned to this weapon you have resistance to poison and acid damage. When you hit a creature with this weapon it must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw or gain one level of exhaustion and you gain a number of temporary hit points equal to your Constitution modifier.
Dungeon Master Tip:
Making it yours!
When running in forgotten realms or another published setting, always remember: It’s still YOUR CAMPAIGN! You should never limit your creativity to what a module or book says. You can and should change aspects of the setting you don’t like, incorporating more elements that you’re more familiar with, and add your own distinctive touch to it.
While altering a published campaign setting to suit your own needs can be tricky if players are well informed on the lore, just let them know ahead of time that some things will change and that what is likely true in the settings normal lore, may not be true here. This can help avoid arguments with players that know the world in and out. That’s why they are called ‘Guides’. Use them as springboards for your imagination and creativity.
Player Tip: Don’t be a Dick
Roleplaying a Dwarf!
Proudly declaring they were made from the planet itself; dwarves share many qualities with the stone they love. They are strong, hardy, and dependable. They value their long-held traditions, which they preserve as fiercely as they defend their magnificently carved mountain homes.
Dwarves believe in the significance of clan and familial ties. They have a hardy respect
their elders, and they honor long-departed clan founders and heroes. They place great value on wisdom and the experience of years.
More so than most other races, dwarves seek guidance and protection from the gods. They
look to the divine for strength, hope, and inspiration, or they seek to appease cruel or destructive gods. Individual dwarves might be impious or openly sacrilegious, but temples and shrines are found in almost every dwarven society.
Dwarves' memories are as long lasting as the mountain; thus they never forget their enemies, either individuals who have wronged them or entire races of monsters who have done ill to their kind. This mentality reveals itself most evidently in their fierce hatred for orcs, which often inhabit the same mountains which wreak devastation on dwarf communities. Dwarves also despise giants and titans, because the dwarf race once labored as the giants’ slaves. They feel a mixture of pity and disgust toward those corrupted azers and galeb duhrs dwarves who still have not freed themselves from the giants’ chains.
To a dwarf, it is a gift and a mark of deep respect to stand beside an ally in war, and a sign of genuine devotion to shield that ally from an enemy. Dwarven legends honor many heroes who gave their lives to save their clans or their friends.
A masked menace terrifies the region. The adventurers stumble into her scheme: the kidnapping of a famous performer known as Devon Artis. Their mission is to deliver a ransom and collect Devon.
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Please join us on our next episode. We will discuss Kobold Press’ Warlock Grimoire II.
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