Many of the requests I’ve received for this series have pertained to the application of real world architectural elements to fantasy settings and dungeons in particular. While I may do some posts in the future that talk about specific elements and how they can be used in your D&D game, today I’m going to focus on what could be considered the biggest and most important architectural element that anyone could use. As things go, this element may also be one of the most overlooked when it comes to dungeon design for home games or even in published adventures. I’m talking about structure, and not the kind that makes sure your adventure has a beginning, middle, and end (though it can help with that with surprising ways) but the kind that if it were simplified to its most common element: you could just call it columns and walls.
Sure, nearly every single dungeon is going to have walls and maybe its fair share of columns, but the odds are that most of them have not considered structure beyond how it might be interacted with by the creatures or how it might effect the progress of the game. That is basic environmental design in the exact opposite sequence of actions from how it should be. The average DM places walls in a dungeon to stop the PCs from moving in a certain direction, while the average person or creature who builds dungeons would be placing walls to make sure the ceiling / roof stays up. While either of these methods may be perfectly feasible for a DM, you might find that designing a dungeon with realistic concerns and principles may lead to some more interesting environments than you’d have created on your own. As you get better at designing dungeons, those more interesting locations can lead to more interesting interactions and can ultimately lead to better gaming!
The classic trope is that a dungeon is mostly built up of 10 foot by 10 foot rooms, so that seems as good a place to start as any. However, for the sake of scale and symmetry my drawings show a 20 foot by 20 foot room (if you use 5 ft. squares as your scale). Assuming your basic dungeon is made up of stone, brick, or dirt then a square room of this size is pretty simple and there are no real structural concerns. Even a large doorway in each wall is only going to take up half of the wall space, so you can easily have one door on each wall that gives this kind of room the versatility to be either the focus of an encounter or a crossroads between several different areas.
The great thing about structure is that if your dungeon ceiling can span the width of a small room like those above, then it can easily span that distance across an even longer rectangular room so long as that distance stays constant. Basically the weight is only spanning the shorter distance and the length of the room is not really a concern. In this way, if you want to make the simplest of believable dungeons then you can stick to small square rooms and longer rectangular rooms with any number of corridors between them and everything should be fine. However, that can also get pretty boring quite fast, can’t it?
Give Me An “L”
Where do you go from simple square and rectangular rooms? Well, you know as well as I do that the corners of that graph paper are just begging for a good old “L” shaped room! Hold on a second though, if you look at the drawing to the right you’ll notice that where the room bends there is an area where structurally the ceiling is spanning further than it does in the other rooms. This is where you, as the DM, can make a decision about how much you want to use structure. If you think it works just fine, then please use it that way and have fun!
However, if you’re looking to add some further interest to this room and can’t quite figure it out, then I suggest adding some structure to it and seeing what happens. The simplest method of doing this is to change how the ceiling is held up in this room versus the others in the dungeon, maybe the ceiling here is vaulted and goes up higher than the rest of the dungeon so that it can span further. If you go in the opposite direction, maybe structure was left out of the dungeon accidentally and this room is the first glimpse the party gets that maybe their environment is not as safe as they assumed it was.
If you want to go a different route, my illustration shows how I would add two little columns to the room that not only makes it structurally sound (within reason, of course) but it also divides the room up a little bit. Now you have what could be seen as a fore-chamber and a large room beyond, though they still feel like one larger room compared to the rest of the dungeon. This is one of my favorite techniques for designing encounters in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons because a barrier of columns makes the room feel more separated and is a great place for different types of monsters to hide out and join an encounter a round or two late.
You may also notice that the columns I’ve drawn in are very small and do not take up an entire square. This might be one of the biggest differences between how I design an environment and how they’re done in most modules. I treat columns like more of an interactive element than a very small wall, which is how I believe it’s shown on most maps. It also clashes with my obvious desires to make things somewhat believable, as only the biggest and most grandiose of buildings or rooms would need a column anywhere near 4 feet or even 5 feet wide on each side. Instead I typically place them on the intersections between squares and allow the opportunity for characters and monsters to gain cover from the columns in melee while they also serve to make ranged attacks easier to make within the room. If you placed a colonnade of 5 foot by 5 foot columns in a dungeon then any of your ranged characters is going to have a hell of a time shooting through them at any kind of angle. Every once in a while I like to do something nice for my players, too bad for them that they’re shafted (haha!) with a DM who thinks smaller columns is a nice gesture!
One other interaction that I have found throughout my recent campaign that these smaller columns encourages is the thought of knocking them down to hurt enemies or to collapse the roof. This may also be a result of the fact that I have my larger monsters do this on a regular basis, but the players have picked it up as well and know what might happen if those columns start coming down.
The only time you get into very serious concerns with structure are when you start to design larger rooms. You’re more likely to run into columns in larger rooms, particularly when they are more square in shape and shorter in height. I’m sure that many of you have designed or played in a dungeon that has had rooms similar to the one I drew to the right. I kept it on the small side but also added some irregularity to illustrate that just because the room is irregular doesn’t mean the solution has to be also. Again I would like to stress that I’m not saying structure is required or necessary in your RPG worlds, even someone like me who thinks about structure and design regularly goes through dungeons and doesn’t really think all that much about it most of the time. However, if you’re like me you might often hit a road block when you draw a larger room like the one on the right and then have to figure out what the hell you’re going to put into that room. That’s where my suggestions come in.
Looking at the diagram of the room here, I’ve quickly sketched in some rough structural lines to show where the load of the ceiling is being distributed along the walls. While this is not 100% accurate by any means, hopefully it gives you a general idea of the areas that would be most likely to require structure based on where the larger and longer red arrows are shown.
The extremely nice thing about designing structure and then not ever having to really build it is that the most simple solution is often the best solution. As you see here all I’ve done is add two columns to the room that now make it act more like two intersecting rectangular rooms with some extra spaces along the edges. After drawing in the columns I had the interesting idea that the center square area of the room could be a raised and vaulted ceiling, maybe even with a painting on it or some sculpted statues around the edges of the vaulting. This is how I typically try to design a dungeon, and as I’ve just pointed out the simple act of adding two reasonably placed columns has already begun adding some more interest and identity to the room than just another large dungeon room with a group of orcs inside of it.
Is Faking It Better Than Doing Nothing?
Again I have to stress that most of this is still a decent level of faking when it comes to structure, but in my view its much better than having no signs of structure throughout your entire dungeon. For the most part this is one of the biggest elements that I consider when designing a dungeon and it has even helped quite a bit when I’ve had to improvise a dungeon on the spot. Structure is just another one of those elements that can make your dungeon feel like it is actually real, but as I said in the beginning of this post I think it is also one of the most overlooked or incorrectly used elements of dungeon design.
If someone were to ask me what was the most important element to adding interest into a dungeon, my answer would almost certainly be structure. I hope that this has served as a decent introduction to using structure in a typical dungeon, and please share in the comments if this has been helpful to you or if there’s something else you’d like to see along the same lines as this!