I’d like to share an experiment with you, it’s something I’ve done to a minor extent and I believe it might be helpful to other people out there as well. Let’s say you find yourself in the situation where you need to design a dungeon and can’t think of how to do it, whether it’s a spur-of-the-moment situation or you’re just stumped while planning for next week’s game, you need a dungeon and can’t seem to figure out what to do. My first suggestion to solve this situation may seem like an obvious one at first, but the depth that it can go to is probably not as clear. My suggestion is to take a modern day structure that is very well known, and refined over many years for increased efficiency and functionality, the modern office building.
The odds are that most of you either currently work in an office building or have worked in one for some period of your life. To start designing your dungeon simply envision a typical office building that you know relatively well, and then inverse it. At the core of almost every office building is the aptly named “core”, which consists of elevators, stairwells, and sometimes an open space or tall atrium that can span between the first two floors to all the way up through the building. Applied to a dungeon, this can simply translate to a cave or crevice opening into the ground with either natural slopes or carved stone/wooden plank stairs leading down into the depths. If you want to make the analogy even more direct, you can have this be an abandoned dwarven mining colony and include a rope & pulley wood lift that was used to hoist minerals, tools, and workers out of the depths. Now that you have the core extending as deep as you like into the ground, continue to envision an upside down office building around that core.
Public Spaces for Public Places
More often than not the first floor of an office building contains at least one public or retail function, usually a deli or bank that services the workers in the building as well as many people from nearby but outside of the building. This is a direct result of the building’s inevitable meeting with the ground, which inherently makes that space more public than the upper levels. In the same way, the upper-most areas of a dungeon are the most exposed and are likely explored or accidentally stumbled into far more often than the depths. This doesn’t mean you should put a restaurant in your dungeon, but perhaps an often used traveler’s shelter camp can be found in one of the upper caves or if you’re playing in a more high-fantasy game this would be the perfect location for an underground market or trading post set up for trade between the surface and the Underdark.
Another great use for these “public” places in the upper-level of your dungeon could be an area ripe with traps and dangers set up entirely because these are the areas that are most often accidentally discovered by those on the surface. Either way, most likely these upper areas are not going to be the main locations of your dungeon and they provide a good buffer between the surface world and the dungeon. This technique also allows your dungeon to feel a bit more organic, as it becomes clear that the interaction of the surface world and the underground world has a unique impact on the inhabitants of both worlds. One important aspect to remember is the core that was discussed above provides a very clear method of travel not only to the top most places in the dungeon, but it may also provide an efficient way for most characters and creatures to by pass the surface locations if they choose to do so. The core may also be trapped as a result, but no matter what it is important to provide your players with a way of getting beyond these surface locations and into the deeper sections of the dungeon.
Where the Workers…um, “Work”
The upper levels of the typical office building are split up in many different configurations between varying numbers of different companies and offices, so translating this part to a dungeon is really not that difficult at all. Your dungeon can be entirely inhabited by one big “company” of orcs or even just one level of the dungeon can be split between orcs, gnolls, and Microsoft. Hell, many of you have probably even experienced interoffice tensions so this office-to-dungeon analogy can be as direct or indirect as you like! If you refer back to some of the previous Architect DM articles, you’ll know that I’m a fan of designing based on real world influences and I’m not about to stop that with this experiment. The workers in most of our modern office buildings do not live there, but they commute to the building to work and then commute home. If we’re designing what was once a dwarven mining colony, this can work perfectly as you design something that has no naturally built living spaces. After a certain amount of time neglect and disrepair will have set in; monsters have no doubt moved into the mining colony and have now adapted those spaces no matter how uncomfortable they may be to become their makeshift homes.
Some of the basic keys to designing the lower parts of your dungeon can be taken directly from typical office design. Each of your “offices” should have their own direct connection back to the core, whether it was built from the beginning or added in by the new inhabitants, a connection to the surface (or to the depths) will be key for many of the inhabitants survival. The core can also serve to bring fresh air and even some light into the deeper parts of the dungeon, depending on how deep you’ve decided to make the core, which could actually lead to a relatively comfortable form of shelter deep within the ground for some of your less-monstrous denizens. Perhaps some of your dungeon offices exist on multiple floors and have secret or interior means of traveling between floors independent of the core, but sooner or later your party should come back to that core that should hopefully create a sense of coherence between the different levels of the dungeon.
An Openly Designed Dungeon
I doubt that any of your players would play through this dungeon and be able to put together that it was designed based on an office building, but somewhere deeper in their design-subconscious they will recognize the similar themes and may even buy into the dungeon a bit more because of their familiarity with the concepts. Though if they get too familiar, you can always drop a dragon on their heads to remind them what the world of D&D is all about – fantasy. The basics of this experiment, at least how I see it playing out, are that your dungeon has a more organized plan to it and is less random in its structure. The mechanic of designing a core through the center of the dungeon can be very helpful because when you hit a roadblock with the design of the dungeon, or even if you hit one mid-adventure, you have an element that you can take the dungeon or the party back to that can hopefully refresh things and get them moving again. It may also really tie the room together (NSFW).
Now that you’ve read a bit about the experiment, I encourage you to try it out and please let me know if you do and how it works! Also, as you continue to design dungeons, I very much recommend applying this concept to other types of buildings you see and experience to create interesting and new dungeons for your players to explore. Just imagine translating your local public library or the local team’s stadium into a dungeon and the interesting kinds of locations that you could end up creating as a result.