While I am hard at work on my current campaigns chapter one recap write-up, where my group still has one room to go. I figured I would talk a little bit about writing dungeons and adventures; At-least the process I have been going through when I start to write.
My process usually starts out with a theme for the adventure. I tend to flip through fantasy art books, sci-fi art books, periodicals, and websites till I find an image that inspires me. Since I need monsters and the sort I tend to look through monster manuals, bestiaries, and old supplements I have lying around. When something strikes me as level appropriate or encounter appropriate, I will then build around that monster as the base of my theme. This does not mean the monster is necessarily exactly level appropriate for the group but needs to fit into the kinds of adventures the level my heroes are currently at, i.e. they are not going to be running into a Tarrasque at level five group as a combat encounter.
The next step I try to think of traps, riddles, puzzles, random bits of encounter that would fit the theme. This usually will happen simultaneously with my dungeon design. So I will design my rooms to fit into the trap/encounter design. I carry around a little booklet with me everywhere I go. When I am out and about doing stuff and I get an idea for a room or dungeon I will jot down ideas and sketch out a quick room/dungeon floor plan.
The above picture is an example of the beginning stages when I design a dungeon. I will design rooms to the shape I need in as realistic a manner that catacombs might be. I have an issue with creating dungeons or buildings that would not function as such. So I try to give them structural purpose. For example if I am designing a temple everything needs to fit into the shape of the temple. I have gotten around this using geological or magical change. I try to give players options within the layout so they can pick their own path. Rooms will expand, shrink, disappear, appear, and go through redesign till they fit the size I need for the encounter. Sometimes these adjustments are done on the fly to make an encounter more interesting. I want everyone to be able to fit in a room, feel they can move, and use strategy to beat a combat encounter. It can be difficult to do that if the room is too small and the second they walk in they are faced to face with a foe.
I try to make as many of my encounters as unique as possible so not to repeat rooms exactly as they may have been in the past if I have used a similar mechanic with my group. One such room that I created in my current campaign involved a room with twenty floor panels that the players needed to activate to cross the room. They only needed to activate enough panels to cross the room. They were presented with a polyhedron, which they had to roll. This polyhedron had symbols on each side that corresponded to a tile. When rolled the tile would activate, and on top of activating the tile a positive or negative effect would trigger on the character. One such effect was a rancid stench, that would emanate from a character lowering all skill checks that dealt with the player interacting with another player or NPC. The next time the players encounter a tiled room I want them to remember this encounter and have an effect on their role-play while problem solving.
For my combat encounters I try to use monsters or NPCs that fit my theme. Since I have already selected my theme from inspiring art this part is never as hard as making unique trap encounters. If I need to I will take creatures that are not at the appropriate power level and adjust them so they are. This can be as simple as lowering hit dice and damage output on the creature. In some cases it requires a complete overhaul to fit my need. In some cases I will write-up new monsters to fit my theme if I cannot find an equivalent that can be retooled or renamed.
I find myself retooling dungeons and encounters on the spot more frequently than not. It is always important to remember that nothing has to be set in stone. If and encounter is turning out to be too difficult, to long, or just plain boring, retool it on the spot so your players can continue to have fun, I promise you as the DM will too.
- Find something that inspires.
- Build a theme around this object
- Select room mechanics that fit this theme.
- Design buildings/rooms that fit your theme
- Flesh out the encounter with monsters and supplemental flavor items.
These are the basic process I go through, and the basic principles I follow when going about my dungeon design. I find that these very few steps I take I can make a very complex dungeon crawl for my players. What are some of your philosophies on DM? Do you have a process that you do when you DM that you consider unique? Would you like to read more articles like this? If so share your ideas, stories, disasters, methodologies, or just general DM concepts in the comments. If you feel I missed an important step in design, than share that as well.