Back in one of my earliest Architect DM posts I said that structure was one of the most overlooked elements of dungeon design. These days most of the published dungeon maps that I see are not bad with regards to structure, but from what I’ve heard this is still something that a lot of people would like to learn about for their personal, hand drawn dungeon designs.
In the first post I did about this topic (The Architect DM: Give It Some Structure) I started with the classic 10 foot by 10 foot room and expanded from there. Today, I’m going to start with the other classic element of D&D dungeon design – the corridor. Just as I expanded to a 20 x 20 room with 10 foot corridors in my previous example, I’m going to use 10 foot wide corridors for my illustrations because I believe it makes them easier to read. I’m fine with this because all of the design elements I’m going to discuss should be easily applicable no matter what width corridors you’re using.
Bland & Reliable
Your classic dungeon corridor (excluding caves, if you’d like to hear about those too please let me know) keeps going and going until it meets another corridor or dead ends in one of the gloriously deadly rooms you’ve designed. I’m calling these corridors bland and reliable because their lack of features makes them predictable in addition to boring, and there’s nothing worse than foreseeing your own boredom. Sure, you can throw in some oddly angled corridors, some secret doors, and a pit trap to make it less predictable but then you’re taking the design from reliable to completely random. If we’re assuming someone has created this dungeon (which we are, no caves, remember?) then very few elements are going to be truly random. Even pit traps, which you want to be completely unpredictable, as a trap should be placed in the best strategic location which in turn makes them more predictable to the wary trap-savvy rogue.
Now let’s look at some ways of making the classic dungeon corridor more interesting and more believable at the same time. If you’re underground, then the first basic concern is what’s holding the roof over your head. In most cases the walls are sufficient to hold up the roof of a corridor, but what if the corridor started to collapse at some point and has since been reinforced? Adding in regular, unobtrusive columns attacked to the walls at a regular interval helps break up the progress through the corridor and establishes a rhythm that you can then use to help in your dungeon design. This also adds another layer of “character” to your dungeon that tells the players this corridor may not be entirely stable as it’s already started to collapse and had to be reinforced once before. Perhaps my favorite result of adding something like this to your dungeon, much like adding columns into larger rooms, is that my players almost always consider if they can collapse part of the roof in by damaging the structure in a dire situation.
Whether or not the corridor is structurally sound, you don’t need a solid reason to add column elements along a corridor. Ancient civilizations loved carving things into stone, and it makes perfect sense that there would be a series of decorative columns placed along the walls of a dungeon hallway.
Design by Rhythm
One more great aspect of creating a rhythm in your dungeon is that this makes your job of designing the dungeon much easier. Once you’ve established a size module for the dungeon, it becomes easier to place things within it. If you go back and look at the featureless corridor above, then imagine it stretching the length of your dungeon design and think about where you would place a door or connect a hallway. The odds are you either picked randomly or chose a specific proportion (middle of the corridor, 1/4 of the way up the corridor) to place these elements. Now look at this corridor and think about where you might put a door/hallway coming off of it.
In fact, this kind of design element helps alleviate one of my biggest pet peeves in classic dungeons – the secret door. My experiences have been that in any given situation D&D players either don’t worry about searching for secret doors, obsess over searching for them at the expense of everything else, or pick up on some hint from the DM / location description and then search. I’ve run many published dungeons where several secret doors were passed by and wondered to myself what the purpose of having them in the design is.
Do they reward the party that searches every single inch of a dungeon? It’s almost a given that they will find the secret door if they’re taking that much time, and I don’t find much satisfaction in a sure thing. Do they reward the absolutely whimsical, random impulse searching? No matter what the real intent is, I enjoy this kind of design because it provides very clear delineations that players may pick up on and start to think, “Hey, this looks like a place a door might be…”
The Better to Break It
By this point I’m sure some of you are thinking, “But I don’t want to make my dungeon so regular, so predictable, or have a rhythm to it.” My response is that adding these elements and creating a rhythm in your dungeon is still very helpful with these design goals. Adding a rhythm makes it much easier, clearer, and in my opinion overall better when you want to add elements that break that rhythm. If you want your dungeon to be unpredictable or more random, add a regular element to a corridor and then purposefully at some point take it away. The players will most likely notice, and you’ve added a small dungeon-centric mystery for them to investigate. Not to mention that doing this is ready-made adventure planning for you as you have to figure out why the design changed and what it means for the dungeon and for the adventuring party that’s exploring this location.
Here’s a bit of a disconnected but still very relevant example. Think about the early exploration scenes in the movie Aliens and not only how the characters’ experiences change but also the viewer’s experience changes. The marines go from a very rigid, industrial environment as they’re exploring the terraform reactor to the biological, unpredictable, and very fluid environment of the alien hive. The great thing about this shift in environment is that at first there are no aliens even present, it’s simply a change in the “dungeon” environment that evokes all kinds of feelings in the characters and viewers. You can achieve some of the same effects by setting up a rhythm in your dungeons and then breaking that rhythm in fun and interesting ways.
Further Down the Corridor
Obviously this post has only addressed corridors/hallways, and even then just a small selection of ideas for improving on them. My goal is to keep talking about structure in RPG dungeons until I cover everything I can think of to cover it. Here’s where you can help! Do you have questions after reading this post? Do you have other ideas of how to do things, or elements of your own dungeons you’d like help with? Please get your questions, concerns, and ideas to me either in a comment here, on twitter (@Bartoneus), or e-mail me at the address in my signature below this post. I want to hear from you, but more importantly I want to know what you need help with when you design your own dungeons!
Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.