The Architect DM: Building Foundations

A couple of weeks ago I did a guest segment on the Dungeon Master Guys podcast with Quinn (from At-Will) and Dave about the topic of improvising as a DM. While discussing this with Dave and Quinn I suddenly realized that I have become rather adept at coming up with dungeons, locations, and hand drawn battle maps on a whim when they are needed in my D&D campaign. Both of them quickly suggested that this might be a result of my day job as an Architect and designer.

This is the first post in a series I’m calling “The Architect DM” where I will be talking about how the ideas, concepts, and philosophies of designing real life locations can be applied to your D&D game. This series will not be a “how to make your D&D game exactly like real life” kind of guide, but I will try to provide suggestions for what can be done to make the game feel like real life, and what can be done to make the game have an even greater sense of fantasy to it!

What are the origins of your environment?

As the title of this post suggests, I’m going to start with some of the groundwork that goes behind the idea of designing a dungeon or any kind of location you use while running a tabletop RPG. The deepest and most important part of a location’s foundation is who created it, and perhaps the most fundamental question is: is it a constructed environment or is it natural? The answer to this question can be either response, or both!

Suppose your players have stumbled upon old ruins that have been overtaken by nature, you should create a location that has the feel of both a purposeful building and the untamed chaos that nature brings to things. You can approach a location like this in many different ways, but one of the more involved methods would be to roughly plan out what the location was like before it was claimed by nature. Once this is complete you can begin to tear it down in interesting and fun ways!

Don’t spend too much time on that rough plan, however, because the players will only ever see a  portion of it so you don’t need to flesh it out entirely. The easiest way to accomplish this is to reuse a location you’ve already created, either for the same campaign (and have the party return to it after a long time absent) or feel free to take a location from a previous campaign or any published module you can find. One of my late heroic adventures in my current D&D campaign involved the party returning to the Keep on the Shadowfell hundreds of years after the module took place, entire sections of the dungeon had collapsed and other new areas had opened up, but the basic feel of the dungeon was still quite present in the adventure.

Who designed this place?

If the location you’re designing was created for a purpose by some kind of creature (we’ll call it man-made for simplicity), then it helps to have a general idea of who built it and for what purposes. To think about this in modern day terms, a Hospital is built for the specific purpose of treating sick and injured people which will be quite different from a train station. You can do a pretty basic analysis of a location and come away with the overall concept of it – hospitals are made up of large groups of smaller rooms, whereas a train station is primarily a smaller number of very large areas.

The same analysis can be done in reverse, however, by thinking about the use of a location and finding parallels that you can relate to. The town hall of a fantasy village is most likely going to be one large, dominating building/room while a mining village is going to be made up of several smaller living quarters and will have a strong focus on the mines that they are built around. The “who” of this section also plays a big part, as a village for humans is going to be quite different from a village for giants, and so on for dwarves, kobolds, dragonborn, or any of the fantastical races that show up in RPGs.

The easiest way I find to style a location for a particular race is to think of a few simple changes and one or two overall themes that can be applied. Think about how Hobbiton looks in the Lord of the Rings movies, as everything is smaller due to the smaller size of hobbits (simple change) and it all relates very strongly to the earth (overall theme) – the houses are buried into the ground, almost everything is an earthy color/tone, and everything has a strongly circular feel to it that is very earth-like.

Don’t be afraid to take a theme and apply it until it feels overdone for you, this generally ensures that the players will get a good sense of it but without your overall view of things (you are the DM, afterall) it won’t be smacking them in the face nearly as much as you think it will. A prime example of this is that the Hobbiton houses not only have circular doors and hallways, but they are also laid out in circular plans. If you were looking at it all at once, you’d think it has too many circles but when experienced it all seems to fit right together.

How long has it been here?

The last big consideration for the foundation of your locations is something that constantly effects every location, time! How long has the location existed and is it still in use are the most obvious aspects, but you also have to consider how much experience the creators have making these types of locations. Something that I rarely see come up in an RPG is to not be afraid of designing a location badly. After all, you as the DM can always blame the people who created that location in the game world or if it’s a natural location then you have nature itself to pass the blame off to. Maybe the dwarves who constructed their mining colony hadn’t yet learned that building too close to the mine shafts could lead in some buildings being demolished by explosives. Conversely, maybe the dwarves already learned this valuable information and you have a good in-game reason for the mining colony being a certain distance away from the mines.

This concept also comes into play if we look back at the hospital example. A hospital designed a hundred years ago will look like the spokes of a bicycle wheel because medicine at the time was focused on air flow and grouping of patients together (oddly similar to some early prison designs). However a more modern hospital looks completely different due to advances in technology and medical sciences. Apply these to your fantasy setting and you’ll be surprised how much character you can bring to an otherwise ordinary location. Your players might start to notice which dwarven colonies have advanced to using explosives simply by how their mining colonies are laid out!

Any questions?

I hope that I haven’t lost anyone by now, and I hope that this look at some of the very basic principles in location design is helpful! What I’d really like to find out is if these kind of principles help you in designing locations as a DM/GM, or if there are more specific questions and concerns you have. I will no doubt be talking about a combination of large scale concepts (like in this post) and nitty-gritty specifics, but if you think one topic or the other will be more helpful please let me know. Also if you have any specific questions please feel free to pose them here (or e-mail me privately) and I’ll most likely address your questions in future posts in the Architect DM series!


  1. Mrs. Bartoneus says:

    I need you to draw me a maze in 1 minute that will take 2 minutes to solve.

  2. Sounds like you are looking for a name change – ArchitectDM

  3. @Mrs. Bartoneus: I totally thought of Inception as well. 😀

    Very, very, very interesting post! I’d actually like to know more about the principles you touch on, because it’s not something that I’ve studied much. That is, what floorplans match up with what purposes. I’m sure if I thought it through, I could figure out a number of types of buildings, but is there a book or some such thing that details building designs, with regards to function and history?

  4. Fantastic article. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series!

  5. Elfteiroh says:

    Great intro to this serie. Waiting eagerly for the rest!
    But more precisions like Andy said would be very swell.

  6. metaDM: probably won’t change my handle, but it seemed like a fitting name for the series! (thanks to Dave for helping me decide on one)

    Andy: Don’t agree with her, that only makes her stronger… 😀 I’ll go a bit more in depth with regards to some of the principles I talked about in the future then. As far as a reference book goes, most architectural history books will include what you’re talking about, but I wouldn’t consider them the most fun reading (and they’re even in my field of expertise)! Perhaps in a future post I can go through the most common fantasy buildings and discuss what they would look like, if that’s what you’re thinking?

    Justin & Elfteiroh: Thanks!

  7. Bartoneus: Yeah, that’s along the lines of what I’m thinking. You mention a few examples here, which is cool, like the hospital, town hall, mining camp. So, a very, very brief overview of five or six other common fantasy buildings, for example, based on their function.

    Can’t wait to see the next article–these are things that all of us should dabble in at least a little.

  8. It just goes back to the basic idea of increasing immersion by doing the background work and increasing internal consistency.

    I have a few eras and origins of specific architecteral styles, as well as some setting specific building materials. Being able to tell a player that a building is an example of orginal Marcher style construction or that it has omwo -influenced bas-reliefs around the entrance and to have them know what that means…that shows me that the setting is gaining in internal consistency.

    A nice addendum to this post would be specific advances in architecture that would come in an order based on previous advances. Thanks much for this excellent post!

  9. This is exactly the philosophy I adhere to when building my adventures locations. It really makes the process easy. I’ve been behind the DM screen for almost 30 years and in that time have done a lot of research into this area which has helped, too.

    It’s funny, in a recent thread over at the official D&D forums, a new DM asked for help with designing dungeons and I offered this philosophy of realism. Another response suggested that mine was too boring and he needed to jazz it up with what amounted to a bunch of over-the-top fantasy stuff so the players will enjoy it more. I guess a bunch of random geometric shapes connected by corridors is cool as long you have dragon scales and skulls on the walls. Good stuff.

    Thanks for this article. Looking forward to the rest of the series.


  1. […] about applying real world design concepts to your own personal D&D or tabletop RPG world. Last week’s post was a relatively broad overview of the basic aspects to consider while designing a location. Today […]