The Architect DM: Function & Playability

Welcome to the second installment of my series 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 I would like to look at a different approach to designing locations, which involves thinking more about how the game will actually play out and how your players (and you as the DM/GM) will use and interact with the environment you’re creating.

Typically when I design a space for use in an RPG, I will go back and forth between these two styles of design at regular intervals. When I begin I might be thinking about the fantasy setting that has led to the creation of a building, then I will go through and design that building as I think about the players and monsters interacting with the locations, and then I will go back through it again and apply an additional layer of setting and history to it. This is an ongoing and interactive process, between you and the design, that should result in a balanced product that is both functional and rich in inspiration.

How are the players going to see this?

There is a very harsh reality that you have to face: if your players don’t experience the environment of your game, then it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into it. Another way of wording this would be that even if you put a month worth of effort into designing an encounter location, if you fail in the presentation of that encounter everything can fall flat and go to waste. A battlemat or dry erase board is one of the easiest ways to convey a setting to your players, but if you’re not using one of those then your best friend has got to be picture references.

If you’re running a Vampire game and the players are going into a gothic church, then showing them a picture of a gothic church is the perfect thing to do. Don’t squabble over whether it is Notre Dame that you’re showing them or if the exact details are not correct, just show it to them briefly and then fill in the details with your descriptions. Unless one of your players is an expert on the gothic order, the specific layout of that church isn’t even important as long as they can experience it and have fun at the same time.

Don’t Be Afraid to Take Creative Control

Let’s say one of your players is an expert on Gothic churches. Let’s say you are running a game for me, and you describe the church and its plan is not the shape of a cross. You don’t know that the church is supposed to be laid out that way complete with narthex and nave. This can be the nightmare for a GM, and indeed this very fear is what has crippled many of my non-fantasy games that I’ve run in the past. Clearly you could do a lot of homework and learn what every single building, location, and environment should look like, or you could have fun and make everything up.

So you’re running the game and I’ve just entered your Gothic church, certainly I could be the kind of player that calls the GM out on these mistakes, but you run with it and agree – this Gothic church is missing a narthex and nave and is not laid out in the shape of a cross. Fascinating! The plot thickens as the players, with added information gained from player knowledge, now investigate exactly why this building is unique amongst the cathedrals. You, as the GM, have taken creative control and designed the environment as you saw fit. Going back to my post about building the foundations of a location, the GM decides who created these locations, why they were created, and how long they’ve been there. By being free with your design of locations, any unique aspect or difference that environment has (whether they are intentional or completely accidental) can be a plot hook or interesting riddle for the players to solve.

Limitations Are Your Friend

Staying with the more modern type of setting for the moment, one of the worst things you can do with a modern building or location is be too realistic with it. Often in an RPG the players will be going into buildings to achieve their goals, but they are entirely reliant on you as the DM to describe the building to them. The way most buildings are laid out would leave the DM with countless doors, rooms, and hallways to describe. This is where limitations will save your life. If the party must go into a skyscraper, you shouldn’t have them search every floor for the person they’re looking for – tell them right away, or let them ask the receptionist, that the person’s office is on the 18th floor. You’ve just established the first 17 floors in the player’s minds with that bit of information, without the need of describing any of them in any detail.

Now the party heads to the 18th floor and you’re still left with a huge amount of information to dole out in the process of play. This is where turning to video games for inspiration is a good idea. Think about any first person shooter you may have played and how they handle level design, the first thought that jumps into my head is “railroading”, but as you should know I’m a fan of railroading when the pace of the game warrants or even demands it. Start with realism and accuracy by having the elevator open into a hallway going both ways and another hallway going straight ahead, but you can save yourself some headache and introduce twists by immediately blocking off one or two of the possible directions. It’s important that you keep the framework of the building in tact, don’t just remove a hallway, but putting locked doors or security check points can provide the sense that the floor is fully populated while saving you the pain of brainstorming every single last detail.

My favorite method of using this trick is using ruined or abandoned buildings and letting the players open a door to a collapsed staircase or out of service elevator. The framework of the building is in tact, but the player’s options for movement and exploration are funneled to the places that I want them to go. This is railroading, sure, but the difference between this and the style of GMing that people often shudder about and call railroading is that if  a player wants to descend the out of service elevator cables or break their way through the locked door / security check point, I try not to stop them out of my lack of preparation for that area. One of the best tricks for letting players do these kinds of things is a willingness to uproot your locations and put them in front of your players.

This Place is Only Anchored in Your Mind

When you design a location or an encounter, you place that environment in your game world and expect or plan for the players to come across it. I can’t think of many DMs who haven’t experienced a game where they designed an encounter and the party completely avoided it or went in a different direction. This is not a new trick by any means, but it is something I had to learn through practice and so I feel it deserves mentioning in this post because a location is only playable if the party actually gets to it! The concept of moving a location might seem counter intuitive to all of my last post about building up a foundation and background for your environments, but it’s better to use what you’ve created than have it go to waste. Even more importantly, it’s better to make the players feel as if the world they’re playing in is real and one of the best ways of doing that is having a location prepared for wherever they go.

One of the ways I’ve designed my D&D dungeons lately is by conceptualizing various rooms and encounters, but never drawing a full plan of how those rooms connect. When it comes time for the game, I will lay out the first room and then completely improvise the exits, doors, and hallways that connect to that room. As the players choose their path, I then pick one of the rooms I’ve already thought about that seems to fit best and put it in their path. Once that room is placed I’ll improvise the hallways and doors out of there and the dungeon quickly begins to take shape. It was a fascinating experience for me as the DM, but I was quite surprised to find out that the experience for the players was exactly the same as if I’d planned the dungeon that way from the beginning. A lot of DMs will debate about fudging rolls during the course of a game, but I haven’t heard much discourse about the concept of fudging dungeons and I really think it is a great way to go about the classic D&D dungeon crawl. The root of the concept is that no matter where you’ve placed a location in your mind, the players only experience that location once it has been described to them and you as the DM/GM can anchor that location anywhere you want whether you planned it that way or not!

The Architect DM Series Continues…

I already have a list of questions or topics that people have brought up for me to address in this series, which I will begin addressing very soon! However now that this second post is up, you might have an even more clear idea of where I’m going with these posts, so please feel free to send me an e-mail and post a comment with your questions or suggestions for future topics.


  1. Danny,
    I am a very long time gamer. I take it seriously. I read a lot of blogs and books on game design, and GM a lot of games, in my own system, developed in my 26 year old setting. I get a few nuggets here and there, but due to this, I see a lot of the same ideas rehashed or rewritten.

    I am loving this series. What a fantastic persective! You taking your real-world expertise as an architect and using it as a lens for all of us to look ad adventure design is pure gold.

    I look forward to the next installment. Thanks.

  2. Very cool! I’ve read a lot about the idea of “Schroedinger’s Room”, the fact that until the players see it, no bit of a building or dungeon is fixed in stone, and can be shunted around to adapt for player actions. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of improvisation in DMing.

  3. LordVreeg: At first read I couldn’t tell if your comment was a criticism or praise between the first and second parts! 😀 Thanks for the praise, and I hope that you continue to enjoy it!

    Andy: I hadn’t thought of the Schrodinger comparison, but I like it. I hope that some of this series helps you with improvising as a DM, because that’s the topic that started the series in the first place!

  4. TheMainEvent says:

    @Bart: You can take the Shrodinger’s dungeon a step further and reuse skipped encounters. In your first article you spoke about revisiting former locations, but I always try to revisit encounters that are ‘wasted.’


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  2. […] will continue and there seems to be a lot of information to cover! In my last post I talked about function and playability of a location in a more general and meta sense, but what I originally started that post to discuss […]