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Seven Amazing DnD dungeon ideas

Updated: Feb 20, 2023





Hands up if you're trying to dream up new DnD dungeon ideas right now and all you have is a map with random corridors, rooms and spiky pit traps connected together.


Ok, cool, most of you, that's fine, it's a pretty standard part of the dungeons & dragons experience.


This makes for a challenging place for d&d players to poke around, kill a few monsters and even find a bit of gold, but if we're not careful it can also be the graveyard of any DnD campaign. Whether you're writing for new players or seasoned adventurers, this article has some suggestions for you (we're assuming here that you play D&D 5th Edition, but if not don't worry, this blog is suitable for any dungeon dive adventure RPG).


Every place in an adventure has to have a purpose, it is somewhere that pre-dated the existence of the players and has its own story. A dungeon is rarely actually a dungeon, it's more often than not:


A complex of caves that has been adapted by bandits (who are now all undead after some terrible eldritch curse), close to a small town and a local farmer has gone missing.

The catacombs of some ruined temple where an evil wizard once lived, now the ghost of the old man haunts the ruins

A maze devised by a fiendish engineer in the grip of dark forces who uses it to trap unwary adventurers in

A pauper's crypt underneath the city streets where the bodies of the unwanted are dumped before they can be burned, where some terrible lurking evil now feeds.


The dungeon is someone or something's home, it's lair, it's hide out and adventurers are normally trespassers. The dungeon is often a site where something has previously happened and adventurers have the task of working out what. A dungeon can be a frontier between this world and another. It can be a place where awful secrets are revealed. More than anything else though, a dungeon is the stage that you the GM will use to help the players act out a story, so it needs to be designed and populated with this in mind. This article has been written to give you some fresh ideas to take your dungeon crawl to the next level. Great dungeon crawls can be the springboard also to a longer campaign, as short adventures and random encounters coalesce, with the aid of a plot twist or two, and take your d&d game in exciting new directions.





Design


It goes without saying that the type of dungeon you create should make sense within the adventure you are writing, whether it's a main campaign or side quests. Ruins have to exist for a reason, and they have to have a history of their own (at one point, they weren't ruins, they were a castle and the process of ruination has to be part of the wider history of the place the adventure is set in. A dungeon full of monsters and nasties that is set in the sewers underneath a large city only makes sense if citizens are being eaten by monsters in the sewers on a regular basis and this in turn would shape the experience of adventuring in the town. The local authorities might not be quite so happy go lucky (they might avoid drains altogether, or observe a curfew, or feel very fearful when someone goes missing). A group of players commissioned to search the sewers to root out the monsters will at first hear the rumours of mysterious happenings before they enter into the darkness as an adventuring party of d&d players to take on whatever lies below. The first plot point isn't the exploration of the sewers under the nearby area, it's the investigation phase (which doesn't have to take a long time).


Here then are some possible dungeon archetypes that you can slot into your adventure. Not all of them will fit, but feel free to make any changes that work for you.


Ancient Ruins - These are the remnants of a long-forgotten civilization, filled with puzzles, traps, and untold treasures and dark magic. Adventurers may face challenges from guardians left to protect the ruins and unravel the mystery behind the collapse of the civilization.


Underground Labyrinth - This is a complex network of tunnels and caves, often inhabited by dangerous creatures and filled with hidden treasures. Adventurers will need to use their skills in navigation and survival to find their way through the labyrinth.


Haunted Mansion - This is an abandoned or cursed manor with a dark history threatening a nearby village. It is said to be haunted by ghostly apparitions and other supernatural entities. Adventurers must face the dangers of the paranormal as they search for treasure or information within the mansion.


Abandoned Temple - A local temple that has been forgotten for generations and is now filled with traps, puzzles, and mysterious relics. Adventurers may face challenges from rival factions who also seek the temple's treasure or from guardians set to protect the temple's secrets.


Castle Dungeons - These are the dark and cramped underground chambers of a castle, where prisoners and other unwanted individuals are held. Adventurers may face challenges from captive monsters, or from those who have taken control of the dungeons.


Lost City - This is a city that has been lost to time, buried by the sands of the desert or covered by the jungle. Adventurers may face challenges from the elements and the dangers of the city's unknown inhabitants as they search for its hidden treasures.


Magical Tower - A tower filled with powerful magic, either abandoned or inhabited by a wizard or sorcerer. Adventurers may face challenges from the tower's magical defenses or from the wizard who seeks to protect his secrets and power.


Dragon's Lair - This is the home of a fearsome dragon, filled with treasure and dangerous traps. Adventurers may face a challenge from the dragon itself, or from rival factions who also seek the dragon's hoard.


Sealed Tomb - A tomb that has been sealed for centuries, filled with puzzles, traps, and treasures of an ancient civilization. Adventurers may face challenges from the tomb's guardians or from an evil sect of local priests seeking the same treasures.


Abandoned Mine or Cave Network - An old mine or a network of caves that have been abandoned, often filled with dangerous creatures and valuable ore deposits. Adventurers may face challenges from the unstable conditions of the mine or cave and from creatures who have made it their home.





The exact size of the dungeon, the number of rooms, corridors and other chambers is of course a matter for you the dungeon designer to decide. That said, it's worth considering why the dungeon exists in the first place as a guide to its size and shape. If it's an undead bandit's hide out in a cave network, the actual number of caves might be vast, but that doesn't mean to say that they are all inhabited or that the party needs to explore them all. A small band of undead brigands might be concentrated in a network of half a dozen caves, as it is the perfect place to devour victims and to lie in wait for their friends. If the dungeon is an abandoned fortress, you might want to consider everything an occupied fortress would have included, from high perimeter walls to barracks, great feasting halls, a barbican, bridges, towers, prison cells, smithies, sewers etc. Sometimes designing the place as it once was, then knocking down a few walls or flooding one level is a good way to create your ruined/abandoned space.


Creating atmosphere


Everything that the characters experience is mediated through you and their imaginations can only be informed through description. Make sure that you add rich descriptions to each location in the dungeon, even if there isn't a combat encounter to take place there. Each place that the players come to is part of the overall story you are trying to create, even if they are passing through make sure that the language you use is descriptive and evocative. If there is one place where you can build suspense, it is in a dungeon. One great example of a dungeon crawl that slowly builds up from suspense to all out battle is the journey of the Fellowship of the Ring through the mines of Moria. In each part of their quest through the long deep dark of Moria the tension mounts until they are besieged by goblins and the great foe (see below for big bads) the Balrog is awakened. Take your players on a similar suspenseful journey of mounting dread or fear, and eventually, when they meet their prime adversary they should be ready for the ultimate battle. Neglect this process of creating atmosphere and the adventure will feel like a dull slog. The whole point of description is to create a particular mood in the minds of the players (this is how we build engaging adventures).


Light


Where does the light come from in a dungeon? Contrary to popular thinking, darkvision doesn't gift the player with perfect visibility in the dark (the way it is described seems closer to night vision goggles), meaning that a darkvisioned character has a better ability to see than a non darkvisioned character but it is far from being anything like 20-20 vision. Without a source of naturally occuring light (a window, or flourescent lichen emitting a strange green light) players will still need to rely on torches or lanterns to journey through the dark places of the world. This, again is an excellent way of building suspense, by reminding them that there are things they can see and things that exist beyond the periphery of their vision. Some players object to this and want the dungeon to be made easier or don't want to be inconvenienced by darkness. Try to hold the line here if you can, as in terms of pace and suspense in the game, it pays dividends in the end. It might be possible to find places within the dungeon where things do become illuminated (rivers of lava, glowing ice crystals, places where the ceiling has caved in and sunlight is visible overhead).


Sound


Dungeons are normally places of silence and quiet, which makes strange noises, when it is experienced, all the more impactful. When Pippin accidentally knocks a bucket and 500 lbs of chain into a well and it clatters and bangs to the bottom, we all know the consequence - hundreds of goblins pour out of their tunnels and attack the fellowship. You can also use sound in this way, The sound design of the dungeon should add to the atmosphere, whether it's the echo of footsteps, the creak of a door, or the dripping of water. Creating suspense through silence in order to shatter it with moments of intense combat or action is a great way of taking the party emotionally from caution to hyper action. Remember that once Frodo and co are discovered in Moria, the action is none-stop until they reach the borders or Lorien. This is a great way of structuring the adventuring - after the stealthy phase, once the players are discovered in a closed and often deathly quiet space, they must fight their way out and the creatures in the dungeon will give them no quarter until they have escaped. All too often, PCs get to wander from room to room, finding seemingly random and unconnected monsters, treasures and traps that they pick off one by one. Instead, think of them entering an entire ecosystem in which they are the unwelcome invasive species.


The Big Bad of the Dungeon and the art of the 'Boss Fight'


Once you've created a dungeon that feels 'alive', you need that arch nemesis at the heart of it.


Dungeon bosses are the centrepiece of any D&D adventure. They offer players a chance to put their skills to the test and confront a formidable challenge. To create a memorable boss fight, it's important to consider the following elements:


"1. Personality: A unique and well-defined personality can make a boss feel like a living, breathing character rather than just a monster to be defeated. Smaug the Dragon is a complex player of games who becomes frustrated that he cannot see Bilbo. He loves the gold that he has amassed from the Dwarves and is able to communicate clearly with those that he comes into contact with. Pinhead, the lead cenobite in the Hellraiser series has buckets of personality, his chilling, terrifying presence and his role as the maker of infernal deals that lead to the endless pain and torment of his victims mean that we as viewers have, at the very least a clear idea about what motivates him. Imagine a Pinhead or a Smaug at the heart of your lair.


2. Tactics: A boss should have a set of tactics and abilities that challenge players in new and interesting ways. For more on monster tactics, check out or blog post here on the cunning traps and ploys that monsters can use.


3. Environment: The environment should play a role in the boss fight, offering opportunities for players to use their surroundings to their advantage or adding additional hazards to overcome. Why does a boss choose the location for a final showdown that they do? Is it their throne room? A prison that they want to keep the players in? An arena surrounded by baying fans and flunkies? Is it close to the exit of the dungeon, just as the players are about to make their escape?


4. Stakes: The final boss fight with the top villain should have high stakes. It should really, really matter if you win or lose against this bad guy. When imagining the stakes, always ask about what would happen if the PCs lose?


5. Story Integration: The boss fight should be a crucial part of the larger story and offer players a sense of accomplishment and progress in their adventure. A random big bad that the PCs defeat in a dungeon somewhere that has no greater meaning to them, other than the fact that he seemed pretty badass is toxic for story telling. It reminds the PCs that everything is pretty much random and nothing particularly matters. Player narcissism sets in at this point and PCs will become more inclined to act like murder hobos or assume that the only thing that does matter in the adventure is them.





NPCs


NPCs and encounters play a crucial role in bringing a D&D dungeon to life. They can provide flavour, challenge, and depth to an otherwise static environment, and might have a profound connection with a party member. A dungeon might be devoid of life beyond the monsters, or there might actually be a number of friendly or hostile NPCs. There might be those that have become lost or trapped in the dungeon, those who have entered it for similar reasons to the PCs (to seek treasure, to right wrong, to carry out a rescue mission). The NPCs might be rivals of the PCs or might offer to work together with them.


1. Personality: Each NPC should have a unique personality, motivation, and backstory that sets them apart from others. It can become easy to create flat and lifeless NPCs as we hurry to write an encounter or a dungeon, but really take the time to create each NPC and work out their exact role in the drama (clue - if they haven't really got one, or you can't think of it, feel free to leave them out of the adventure).


2. Relevance: The NPCs and encounters should be relevant to the story and add to the overall experience of the dungeon. A good way of considering relevance is 'does this person move the story forward at all?' If they don't then the introduction of that NPC just becomes noise and serves as a distraction (players are like cats, they get distracted very easily). There should be a mix of friendly and hostile NPCs, as well as a variety of encounters such as puzzles, traps, and combat challenges. NPCs and encounters should provide opportunities for players to engage in role-playing and make choices that impact the outcome of the dungeon.


3. Development: As the dungeon progresses, NPCs and encounters should evolve and change, keeping players on their toes and ensuring that the experience remains fresh. The relationship with a dungeoneering NPC might change over time.





For example:




  • Initial Meeting - The players meet an NPC who is seeking their help in finding a missing item or solving a problem. The NPC is friendly and provides valuable information or rewards in exchange for the players' assistance. They may be a lost traveller or a local lord.




  • Deeper Involvement - As the players continue their adventure, they may encounter the NPC again, and the NPC may ask for their help with a more complex problem. The players may not realize at first that the NPC is not as trustworthy as they initially seemed, and they may be unwittingly drawn into a dangerous situation.




  • Betrayal - Eventually, the players may discover that the NPC was using them all along, and that their true intentions were not as benevolent as they initially appeared. The NPC may reveal their true nature, or may turn on the players, forcing them to fight for their lives. The PCs might have entrusted a special item or ancient artifact in the wrong hands, only realising this too late.



Risk and Reward



All role play games are a balance of these two things, risk and reward or more crudely, fear and greed. You need to set out what the stakes are, but also appreciate that the traps, boss fights and monsters should be balanced against the potential rewards. There are a few things to consider here, lest you want to see gold-drunk players stagger through tunnels and caverns with a small fortune in gold without having done very much to merit it.


The nature of the rewards: This can range from tangible items like treasure, magic items, a magic weapon or special equipment to intangible rewards like experience points, reputation, or influence.


The difficulty of obtaining the rewards: The rewards should match the challenge of the task. The more challenging the task, the more significant the reward should be.


The impact of the rewards on the game world: The rewards should have a meaningful impact on the game world and the players' progress within it.


The consequences of failure: You should also consider what will happen if the players fail to complete the task or encounter a setback. The consequences should be logical and fit within the context of the game world.


Conclusion


None of this needs to take you hours, in fact, it's better if it doesn't - a great dungeon dive can be drawn up, initially, in about five minutes. Adding the fine details and anchoring it into your world in a meaningful way, so that you stimulate, challenge, terrify and avoid over indulging your players is the trickier part, but this is part of the craft and the artform that is GMing.




Here are some other articles that you might enjoy on NPCs, world building, GMing and the like:



















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