The Architect DM: Negative Space in Dungeons

A very important design concept used in Architecture that I would like to discuss today is the concept of negative space. This topic flows naturally from the discussion in last week’s post about the open spaces in an urban setting being defined by the buildings that are placed around it. In addition I have been thinking quite a lot about the topic since seeing the post on Boing Boing about classic style D&D hand-drawn dungeon maps. If you haven’t seen those maps yet, they are indeed very classic but they are also, unfortunately not examples of good dungeon design.

There is certainly something to be said for that style of dungeon map and the feel it creates, but the simple truth of it is that one of the reasons they feel so classic is because they are inherently illogical and impractical. I admit that logic and practicality are not necessarily the primary concerns addressed by good dungeon design, but at the root of those dungeons there are a handful of factors at play that should not be in play when designing a location for you and your players to explore at the table.

We All Love Graph Paper

Everyone knows it. We really do all love graph paper. If you’re designing dungeons and have never used graph paper then you are missing out on a certain form of exploratory design that most DMs hold very close to their hearts. The problems that are apparent from the “classic” dungeon designs shown in the above Boing Boing article almost all stem from the use of graph paper. For starters, the extents of the dungeon are clearly set at the very edge of the paper itself but far worse than that is the fact that the designer seems to have been overcome with the strange desire to populate every single square of the graph with dungeon.

The next big problem is that the designer has decided to get “creative” and go against the nature of the graph paper by making roughly 50% of the walls at various angles to one another. The end result is a series of straight/angled corridors forming a rough grid around far too numerous rooms almost all of which are forced into harsh triangular shapes. Players and DMs the world over might enjoy looking at these graphite and graph paper dungeons for pure nostalgia, but the fact remains that the only thing gained from playing through them at the table is a shared sense of pride in having survived a horribly designed dungeon.

You might be thinking that I’m being too hard on these dungeon designs and their designer. In all honesty, you’re correct. However, the benefit of this specific scenario is that my opinion and feedback of these dungeons in no way effects how they are designed or how they were played and so I feel that expressing my opinion in this matter is much more like historic observation than any kind of design criticism. Plus, I couldn’t call myself any kind of designer and not have the opinions that I’ve expressed above with regards to these designs. I acknowledge that they may have been designed at a very young age, or that dungeon design as an art form was in its infancy back when these were completed, but if you were to hand me these dungeons today and ask me to run them for a party I would probably laugh heartily and then pull out a sharpie and begin fixing them.

Negative Space is a Positive

What I’ve been building up to with all of this discussion so far is that the biggest thing these dungeons are missing is negative space. In its simplest form within dungeon design negative space includes the walls and larger areas of the map that cannot be occupied by a person. Solid space. Without negative space you can argue that anything you design is essentially non-existent or undefined. One of the biggest advantages of negative space in dungeons is that it is precisely where secret doors and hidden rooms can be hidden. In the above mentioned maps there are several secret doors and rooms indicated, but I bet it wouldn’t take any party long to figure out that anywhere they can’t get through or access is certainly a room because there is no negative space except at the perfectly rectangular borders of the paper/dungeon.

The great news is that it would not be hard for you to take any dungeon, even those I’ve been discussing here, and improve them with the addition of some well placed negative space. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a hundred room dungeon or lots of spaces close together, it just means that the less negative space you have the more of an impact each portion of it will have. For instance, consider an immense dungeon room spanning hundreds of feet in every direction, then imagine the same dungeon room with a large cylindrical column of solid stone in the center of it. Now the space not only has a central focus but most parties will end up checking the column to make sure there isn’t some way to get inside of it. Now think about the immense dungeon room but this time it has large square columns at regular intervals throughout the whole space much like the open mine spaces depicted in Moria in the Lord of the Rings movies. With the careful application of negative space we have managed to amplify and accentuate the inhabitable space of our dungeons in new and interesting ways.

Some Basic Design Principles

Some of the easiest ways to use negative space in your location designs are to consider the thickness of walls, doorways, floors, ceilings, and columns. As I discussed in my earlier post about adding some structure into your dungeons, the thickness of columns and whether or not they take up actual space in your encounter locations can be a very important design decision. Many examples of older style structures have extremely thick walls and doorways by today’s standards because of the building materials and methods that were available at the time. A doorway that is several feet in depth (meaning several steps between rooms) can create a much different feel then simply stepping from room to room and provides an excellent sense of separation that might otherwise be difficult to achieve.

In the end, getting a firm grasp on the design of negative space will greatly improve your ability to design any type of location whether it is a city street/plaza or intimate holding cells deep within a dungeon. If you’re already starting to think about it you might realize that though I am denouncing those dungeon designs as horrible, they actually present some good characteristics that emulate those used in building design. The plan for the Villa Rotunda (picture above) makes excellent use of the space within its boundaries much like those dungeons, but where they differ is that the building has more regularity in its rooms and has actual thickness to its walls.

The reasons for this difference are because in the typical dungeon a certain amount of negative space is going to be required for the tunnels and passageways to not collapse in on themselves, and in a building the use of space should be maximized to reduce the amount of materials required in relation to the space within the building. The ultimate lesson there is what makes for good dungeon design does not necessarily make for good building design (and vice versa), but exploring different options in both types of design can help us improve in both.

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.


  1. Do not feel the least bit guilty about criticizing or commenting on design flaws. It’s so valuable for DMs to expand their understanding of design, since they have to channel work that would essentially be done by hundreds of professional designers over years and years. I really think the best DMs are those who inform each aspect of the game with real-world principles, like the architectural guidelines you’ve talked about here. The same goes for anthropology, history, politics, story structure, technology, or any other aspect of the game. This is why I love this column. It encourages us all to present our stories in a framework of pseudo-realism. I can’t just hop into an architectural or design course, so this sort of discussion suits my needs perfectly.

    I find myself not designing “dungeons” ever, really. Most of my campaign takes place above ground. Now I’m getting a hankering for some Oblivion-style subterranean ruins. Those dungeons were sweet, regardless of how I felt about the gameplay.

  2. When I was in high school, we took a class trip to Daniel Boone’s last house in the Missouri Ozarks. Back when it was built, the area was considered untamed frontier and harbored several hostile Indian tribes and the house reflected this. The outer walls were two to three feet thick, the interior walls were no less than a foot thick, all the doorways were no bigger than five feet tall, there wasn’t a straight hallway anywhere inside, the window shutters were flush with the outer wall (giving inhabitants a handy ledge to shoot from), and even the chimney had a wrought-iron grate built into it.

    Everything about this house screamed defense and protection. We tend to forget how the design of buildings (temples, castles, banks, etc.) are based on their intended use. Subsequently, I have always kept that purpose in mind when creating adventuring locations.

  3. Ken: I visited Boone’s house several years ago with my father. It really was fascinating — you make me want to hop on a plane to go back and see it again.

  4. Dixon Trimline says:

    I continue to love the notion of designing for a real, fake world, and as I read, I started thinking, “Okay, but what would be a GOOD example of design?” Thankfully, you pointed out that there was this pictures at the beginning of the article that was a good example, which I completely missed. *duh*

    Having an open design like the Rotunda feels real and believable, but it does raise some interesting logistical questions, namely:

    1. How do you “contain” encounters? If every section is accessible from every other section, am I designing a LVL + 20 adventure? “And now you are facing 300 orcs who comes pouring in from all the doors.” I guess that is what happened in the Mines of Moria.

    2. How do you manage the battle map? Assuming I’m not fabulously wealthy (and stunningly handsome), I won’t have premade Dwarven Forge settings or even predrawn laminated maps, which means I’ll have to spend lots and lots of time on the disgusting player side of the screen, drawing, drawing, drawing with my wet-erase markers.

  5. @Dixon: I don’t know what you prefer, but I use graph paper that’s set in a 1’X1′ grid. I use sharpies to pre-draw it all. It doesn’t take more than ten minutes, and that way once combat opens up, I have total freedom because I’ve already got a full map, and I don’t have to worry about containment or drawing it on the spot.

    I do bring more of the paper, though, just in case I do need to improv an encounter. This works so well for me, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to those clumsy, thick dry-erase markers that barely erase. Disposable maps are great.

    The only disadvantage of pre-drawing is that you reveal it all at once, unless you cut out each room from the graph paper and add it on when they open the door for a more dramatic reveal.

  6. Dixon Trimline says:

    @DarkplaneDM: I think your solution is a good one, but it just doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it in the past and it was an almighty, world-shattering failure. First, I am artistically challenged, and my premade maps looked like they were drawn by very stupid children. Second, I had dozens of rooms, and could never efficiently locate the next encounter map. I spent what felt like several hours digging through my little satchel, muttering, “I know it’s in here.” This is yet another example of something I’d love to experience as a player but not a DM.

  7. @ Darkplane I also like simple colored pencil sketched out maps on disposable paper, but I’ve had decent luck with a “wet erase” battle board.

  8. @Dixon: I totally understand where you’re coming from. So what do you do? Do you use dungeon tiles?

  9. Dixon Trimline says:

    I have found success with Paizo flip-mats, though that does mean adapting my scenes to the static setting. Wow, that’s a lot of S’s. And mostly I just draw the rooms with dry erase markers, which means I need to keep my rooms nice and simple. I can generally manage a rectangle. Generally.

  10. DarkplaneDM: I’m with you on not really using that many dungeons, most of my encounter settings have been outdoor/above ground locations lately as well. However, I definitely enjoy (and my players seem to also) the occasional dungeon setting every now and then!

    Ken Zieger: Thanks for sharing! One of the big things I’ve been mentioning again and again in this series of posts is to consider such things when designing locations, so that’s a great real-world example.

    Dixon: Not everything has to be as open as the plan I show of the Villa Rotunda. However, you could quickly start to set up some interesting and very exciting things if the party has to avoid fighting 300 orcs because of the location. For instance – what if there is a metal portcullis above many of the doorways? The party would have to go through particular actions to close several of those to make sure the enemies don’t start to swarm them from every direction. This also presents an interesting aspect in that the players get to decide roughly what the encounter location is going to look like based on which doors they decide to close off.

    As for your second question, what I do lately is just draw on a dry erase board for each encounter. In my posts about improvising and having a location design toolbox to pull from I’ve been talking about how sometimes I don’t even know what a location is going to look like until I draw it out in front of the players. I sprinkle in some liberal use of dungeon tiles and other things (like soda can boxes, which I’ll be talking about in a future post) to spice up certain encounters or just when I feel like it.

  11. Soda can boxes…that’s something I want to hear about.

  12. Funny you call it negative space, in paintings the categories are exactly the opposite way round; negative space is the space without any stuff in it.

  13. Josh W: the concept is actually exactly the same, it’s just that negative space in locations is the space that cant typically be occupied by people. It’s the same in the sense that it is the absence of occupiable space.

  14. Peepsalong says:

    I have very little skill when it comes to map design. I use a combination of map tiles (from pdf files printed on card stock), flip mats, and 3d paper models.

    I’ve also used hand drawn maps in an odd format. I place write-on transparency film (comes in 8 1/2 x 11″ sheets) on top of my 1″ grid map and draw in the objects needed. It can easily overlay tiles that were “missing” something and makes the plain tiles customized.

    Appreciate the article. Thanks!


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