The Architect DM: On Dungeons

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the iconic “Dungeon” concept that many of us think of when we think of it in the context of Dungeons & Dragons. Also because only a month or two ago Dave wrapped up his 4E run through the Temple of Elemental Evil with custom mechanics to add to the “large dungeon crawl” feel of the adventures. Now I find my own campaign on the verge of the epic tier (the characters are currently level 19/20), and I am beginning to brainstorm a series of elemental dungeons that they will have to go through as a form of the Temple of Elemental Evil now fractured and embodied in five separate temples. Yes, I loved The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and I plan on stealing liberally from it.

My first inclination when thinking about the classic dungeon is to envision a many of the old D&D module dungeon maps, or even some of the newer ones from modules, and for the most part the style of dungeon that is represented enrages me more than it interests me. I feel that many classic D&D dungeons seem to be embodied by hap-hazard and random design that appears as if it was put together by a child. I will be the first to say that there is a time and a place for that style of design, and that it is not always a bad thing, but I’ve seen more than a handful of dungeons designed in that style which leads me to believe that it is a style some people purposefully apply to their “classic dungeons”. I believe designing a standard dungeon in that style is a big mistake.

I began to address this topic a month ago when I discussed Negative Space in Dungeons, but at the time I kept my thoughts focused on the idea of having space the your players can’t occupy to add differentiation into a dungeon. This post is about a higher concept level of design but is grounded in the same ideas.

Design with Purpose and Style

Let’s face it, the D&D dungeon you’re looking at has been designed by someone who set out to design a dungeon for the specific purpose of it being used in a game of D&D. I believe this is why we see the kind of nonsensical dungeon that feels so “classic”, because the design mindset used is that of making it appear as if the dungeon was not designed by a person setting out to design a D&D dungeon. The intent has completely eroded over the years so that now it is painfully obvious when you’re looking at a dungeon that can be described as stereotypically “D&D” in design.

I am not advocating for abandoning this style of dungeon all together, as it certainly has a nice level of nostalgia and fun that can be associated with it, but I would love for everyone to be aware of design of dungeons and to realize what the advantages and disadvantages are for each style of design that we see (especially in published material). The main problem that I have with the classic D&D dungeon is a problem of purpose and style. The designed purpose of these dungeons is to be played and explored on a table top, and many of them have sub-purposes such as confusing players, disguising traps, and containing monsters. The design style of these dungeons very closely follows the purposes, but if I had to name it (other than hap-hazard) I would name it the “Not Designed” style of D&D dungeon design, because its only dominant style is that of attempting to appear as if it was not specifically designed at all.

The Problem is that Someone Designed This Dungeon

The majority of dungeons that fall within the grasp of this post feature smoothly carved stone, straight walls, defined rooms, and signs of civilization such as doors and lanterns. All of these are clear signs that within the world the game is exploring the dungeon as most definitely designed and created by someone. For me these elements are clear indicators that we should see some logic, specifically with regards to the purpose and style of a location’s design, in our dungeons. I’m not saying you need to have some brilliant high concept and justification for everything you design in a dungeon, but I am saying that effort does not need to be put into designing a dungeon to make it appear as if it does not have some kind of purpose and style.

To give an example, one of the top offenders that I see abused in classic dungeon design is the diagonal. My impression is that people will often throw random diagonals into their dungeons in an effort to make it appear natural or unplanned. The reason I dislike this approach is because it almost always falls into one of two results: the dungeon is mostly rectilinear with a handful of diagonals that grossly stand out and make no sense, or the dungeon is dominated by random diagonals to the point where it makes no sense at all. Neither of these is a desirable result for 90% of the dungeons that we explore.

If we go back to the tenants of purpose and style, we can easily use diagonals without either of these results hurting our design. Purpose is a very easy element to add into a dungeon because unlike in real life we can devise a purpose that we like and add that into the game world. It would make perfect sense for an otherwise rectilinear dungeon to have one dominant diagonal if, for instance, the diagonal follows the flow of an underground river that runs through the middle of the path. If you decide to go with style, then you can build on an idea such as the dwarven style used in the Lord of the Rings movies (or the humans in the new Battlestar Galactica TV show) and have every corner in the dungeon be cut off with a diagonal instead of just being an L-shaped corner. Both of these ideas avoid the feel of your dungeon looking too plain or simply designed but both also make sense as a design and within the game world.

Further Reading on Dungeons

Many of the thoughts in this post are built up over months of thinking about dungeon design, and I absolutely have to mention some of the other people who have written about the subject that got me started along the path of thinking about dungeon design and some of the meta design problems that they bring about. Greg Bilsland wrote a great post about having empty rooms in dungeons back in August of last year, and of course there’s Robert Schwalb’s post from September about Re-examining the Dungeon that inspired a lot of people to start thinking about things in different ways. Both of these posts are good reads and bring up some different dungeon design concepts from what I’ve discussed here. The image above is taken from Greywulf’s funny post from back in 2009 where he used a random dungeon generator to make light of the evolution in dungeon design concepts over the different editions of D&D.

I imagine that this is one of those subjects I will revisit many times in the future, so if you have something to add or discussion you’d like to have on the topic please share in the comments!

As always, please check out the rest of my ongoing Architect DM series for my discussion of similar topics in RPG location design and world building.


  1. Oh man, this series never fails to hit the nail on the head when it comes to building in-game settings… get it? nails… building… anyway, thank you.

    I have recently been agonizing over the random purposeless dungeon when it comes to dungeon layout. In the current dungeon I’m running, I have added the challenge of building a structure that may have previously had many overlapping levels, but which in its ruined state only occupies a single vertical space within any horizontal area. (i.e. if the 2nd floor is accessible, the entrance to the first floor room beneath is blocked) Why do I do this? If I try to draw something on my battle mat, any 3D architectural concepts (even as simple as balconies) which might cause vertical overlap seem to throw some of my players into fits of, “wait, I’m having trouble seeing this…” I think such confusion might also sit somewhere near the heart of the purposeless old-school dungeons, which never seem to have stacked spaces.

  2. Those old rambling dungeons are a bit nostalgic, I must admit. But I agree with your assessment about “someone designed the dungeon”. I love taking a step back when I do dungeon design, and think about who made it, what racial design aesthetics might they use, and what was the dungeon’s ultimate purpose. Once you start thinking like that, it’s hard to make those rambling dungeons and not raise an eyebrow at what you’ve drawn.

    Although, as a thought, one could explain some of those rambling designs as completely logical. Like what if their were more than one dungeon designer, and their design ideas didn’t always match up? Or perhaps the builders penetrated an older dungeon with a vastly different purpose, and decided to incorporate the ruins into their own dungeon (ie. a prison level opens into an old crypt). Or perhaps stone itself dictated bizarre tunneling – builders being forced to wind around a type of rock that was deemed too expensive and tough to mine through? So rambling dungeons need not be completely out of the picture, but just might require a little more explanation for why they, well… ramble.

  3. Geoff: Thank you, I’m glad the posts have been consistently beneficial! Also glad that the topics seem to line up with what a lot of people are working on for their games, it’s always good to hear feedback like that, so thank you again!

    Neuroglyph: They’re totally nostalgic, as I believe I mentioned in the post, but for me that’s about all they have going for them. ๐Ÿ™‚ As I’ve tried to touch on in some of my previous posts on the subject, I’m firmly of the mind that even if you’re attempting to do one of the cool mish-mash ideas you mention there, many of the details put into the design and that are specifically pointed out as you run the location should allude to and build upon the ideas you’re presenting. The way I see it, just because the old/nostalgic style of dungeons COULD be explained by some kind of unique occurrence, that doesn’t necessarily excuse the design of all its flaws. Then again, you’ve illustrated some great ideas for how to take those old dungeons and apply a flavor to them with a few simply added details, which is definitely a cool thing to do.

  4. I don’t know about the whole nostalgia thing. I’ve been RPGing since the late 70s, and I’ve =never= had a stomach for random purposelessness in dungeon design. I’ve been as guilty as anyone of designing things that were meant to be interpreted through the medium of graph paper (“Look! We’ve mapped this weird room, and it turns out to be shaped like a spider!”), but even then there was some in-game logic, however thin (it’s the temple of the spider god).

    I also don’t think randomness of design is a defining feature of the old-school dungeon. Sure, there are plenty of random, graph-paper-filling dungeons from that era, but most of the published stuff was somewhat purposeful in layout. I get much more nostalgic over quarter-inch grids printed in pale blue than I do for the randomness . . . .

    (On an entirely tangential note, on my site today I’m talking about the design and layout of the English pub as a model for fantasy taverns.

  5. It’s possible that the key flaw of “old-school” dungeons is the title we seem to have arbitrarily given them: “Dungeons.” What does that even mean? It’s not a general word – a dungeon is an underground prison – but it’s been warped into this vague, all-encompassing term that could include anything from a protective labyrinth to an ancient, ruined temple.

    Like you say in this post, dungeons need to have been built for a purpose. That purpose should define what we call them. If we call all of these structures “dungeons,” we’re likely to find ourselves halfway toward making a choice in every direction. Our “dungeon” will have a little bit of labyrinth, a little bit of mineshaft, a little bit of ruined temple, and a little bit of underground wizard dwelling. That’s how the “old-school” dungeon developed – it’s a directionless hodge-podge. So I think we should call a temple a temple, call a labyrinth a labyrinth. The term “Dungeon” is the culprit.

  6. When I design dungeons, that is when I don’t simply take maps from published adventures, then I usually start by creating a random dungeon with the tables in the DMG. Completely random, only limited by its size. Sometimes I also roll for what is in each room. Then I try to find a purpose for this dungeon and every room in it, changing the map as needed.

    I really like this, as it’s fun, and the result is probably more interesting than it would be if i started with a purpose and tried to play dungeon architect and design a map around this purpose.

    By the way, I like your idea of cutting off the corners of rooms. I’ll try this in the next dungeon of my current campaign. Probably I’ll regret it, because the rooms will be harder to draw on the battlemap… ๐Ÿ˜€

  7. I have to say, I think the Gygaxian strategy of random tables works very well for some elements of the game, but I think environment isn’t one of them. Making a building or encounter environment have random dimensions, a random assortment of rooms, and random contents eliminates any prayer you have of consistency or creative control. Only two things can be said of such a “dungeon”: 1) it’s nostalgic, as noted in the above blog post, and 2) it’s easy.

    For some DMs, ease is a top priority. But in my case I place much more value on the quality of the world I’m trying to create with my players than to leave it up to chance. The entire purpose of this series is to inform our campaign and setting design with real-world principles. In a real world, buildings aren’t made with random result tables.


  1. […] at Critical Hits has an interesting article on dungeon design I think any GM or writer working away on a dungeon map should consider. Far too often I see […]