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Fantasy Dungeon Creation

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After getting a comment on how I build campaign world maps, I've decided to talk about how I create dungeon maps. I have a confession... it's easier than I want to admit.

There are three sources for dungeons - natural caverns, man-made (creature made!!), and combo dungeons.

With natural caverns, I just use squiggles on a piece of graph paper - or download an existing cave map ( Then I arrange the monsters with as much of an eye on defense as to functionality. More on that in a moment.

Created dungeons are built for the designer's desires - but keep in mind that unless he's using LOTS of magical help, underground construction takes a VERY long time and is EXTRAORDINARILY expensive.

Most are combo dungeons - take any existing cave system and make it better. It helps your purse and it helps you use the darned thing before you are collecting Social Security.

The most important thing to consider is functionality. There are some questions to ask:
1. How will we make sure we always have good air?
1. What do we do with waste?
2. Where/how do we get food/water?
3. Where will we eat and sleep?
4. How do we get in/out?

For those truly anal people reading, you may note that I have two #1 questions - that's because they are equally important. Bad air will kill everyone, and swimming in a cesspool is a sure bet to get people sick (even in medieval times, they knew that poo was bad for health).

When using existing caves, I fight over those first two (one) questions the most - and they ALWAYS are paramount to anything else. We gotta breathe and we gotta poop... everything else is secondary. I always find a place to place the latrines FIRST - and then worry about air - and, unfortunately, usually resort to some tiny crack that creates a vent... it is a tired trope, but it helps.

How do you get food and water down there to your minions? If the "bad" guys (SOMEBODY has to consider the PC's the "bad guys"!!) are at the entrance, are you going to starve? How easy is it to cut off your water supply? Sure, most water supplies were contaminated and water was notoriously dangerous to drink, but if you brew a crappy beer with it and let it ferment for about 12-hours, it was "safe" (they didn't understand the deal about the boiling of the water... they thought it had to be brewed...) Now - where do the minions eat? What do we do with scraps? Odds are that they'll be tossed into wherever the poop goes, but we have to consider that!!

The next thing to consider is sleep. Sure, it's fine to SAY that everyone will sleep on the floor - but until you've actually slept on a cave floor, you have never really encountered a bad night's sleep. It's unbelievably cold, and in 99% of the cases, VERY damp. Then you have the critters... it's worse than sleeping under the stars (which is very uncomfortable!).

Okay, once you figure out that - then we get to the last OMG thing we have to consider - how we get in and out. You have one entrance? Great! After the first knock on your door-step, the caverns will be uninhabited and you will be dead. You HAVE to have either a legitimate second entrance, or at LEAST a sally-port/evacuation route!! If you don't, then a single stinking cloud spell will be doom for all of you.

Now we have the basics. Look LONG and hard at your entrances and then we can start to build the rest. What's important??

Next is fodder for the fires. If you're gonna cook, you're going to need fuel for the fires - and propane doesn't exist yet (except as a poisonous gas!!). Wood/peat/animal droppings take up LOTS of room - and constantly need to be replenished.

How about a place to store food and drink? This is next on the list for MUST HAVEs... Mold will play havoc with your dry-goods unless you have magical dehumidifiers working around the clock. Candles help cut this and add needed light, but greatly increase the fire danger - and a fire in a cave is a death sentence.

How about a place for the ruler to sleep/eat so they can be segregated away and feel special about themselves? Sure, some will demand it - others will think, "I"m a man of my men, as we all live together!" Good for them - and it's great for junior leaders, but for the uber-boss, familiarity breeds contempt, and you HAVE to be separated.

NOW we can get to the "stupid" stuff.

Tops on the list is simple... what about some STORAGE rooms? How about a training area for the troops? A "greeting room" for guests or a place to show off? What of an actual "barracks" for the troops to sleep? Don't forget that there will be 24-hour guards - so that means there will be 24-hour sleepers as well - and they need a quiet place to sleep. A temple/place of worship? A smithy/forge for repairs?

What about engineered traps and foils like a dumb, 3' wall at the end of a long hallway for archers to hide behind and get a huge bonus for cover, or a nice straight hallway with a wavy patters cut into the floor like speed-bumps? It's a perfect, "I'M GONNA CHARGE - oh, wait, I'm 20' into it and now I can't..." sort of foil.

You may have noticed that before I built any of the extra stuff, I mentioned the layout of the entrance. I did this for a reason. You HAVE to so you know how big stuff can be that you attempt to lug into a dungeon!! I don't know HOW many times I've adventured in dungeons and saw some gargantuan siege engine (ballista, usually) set up for defense, but there were so many abrupt right angles and 180 turns that there was no way it could be brought down there. Or that HUGE bed the boss-man sleeps on... you GOTTA be kidding, right?

The last thing I think about is improvements. What's the next thing to be built - and WHERE ARE THEY PUTTING THE RUBBLE? There will ALWAYS be some improvements going on - even if it's just to white-wash the walls - and there will always be rubble going up. The amount of rubble will end up being about THREE times the volume mined out due to expansion and not being packed in like it was. This means that there is a LOT of crap to be placed SOMEWHERE. What I usually do is build a compound around the entrance/entrances to allow for outside stuff that is too hard to do underground (tanning is both poisonous AND horribly stinky - a smithy is horribly noisy - and animals are just a nuisance. If we can put them outside until absolutely necessary, then GREAT!!

If we have critters like cave-life that we breed and eat, there HAS to be diversity. If not, we will be just like Ireland and the potato famines that drove half their population to the US, half starved to death and the other half were lucky as hell to live through it (ignore my math, I'm making a point). If you only eat one thing, if something goes wrong, you are screwed in a BIG way.

The second part I want to talk about is the subsequent owners. EVENTUALLY, no matter what you wanna do, the society is going to fall, and someone new will move in. In most cases, they'll use the same spaces for the same stuff as the last residents... but I always think about who had it first. If dwarves had it first, then there will be spaces to place raw ore, cleaned ore, and smelted ore/ingots. Don't forget - it will be about 5' for head clearance as well!! If orcs had it, there will be nesting/breeding pits and fighting arenas. I just run down the line.

The last part (thankfully!) I will touch on is magic and magic defense.

Unfortunately, unless a dungeon is HUNDREDS of years old, nobody will spend the money to prevent magical attacks, outside of a "Gust of Wind" scroll or two near the entrance to get rid of gasses/smoke. How do you defend against a "Rock to Mud" spell? You swim... and then run. Fireball? You have doors - or hanging things that may disrupt the line of sight. For the most part, you are screwed - unless your evil-grand-daddy was Dark Lord Bernie Madoff and they left you with bazillions of gold pieces... other than that, you'd better have LOTS of free spell-casters at your beck and call. The only way to get around this is through lots of agreements with powerful undead... or just lots of mindless undead. Don't forget that after a month or two, all of your scary zombies are now just scary skeletons - and the place smells like a charnel house. Anything able to become noncorporeal is great - but DANGED hard to control!!

You may ask, "Hey, Malruhn, you said you were going to talk about creating dungeons and all you talked about were social and biological stuff!" You are right. If you life in a FANTASY world, you can have 300 orcs hiding behind that door to a 10x10x10 room (I've played in many a campaign that had that!!), then my logic won't work with you - because you aren't using any. With MY way, there is logic - even to the detriment of the fantasy genre. A group of dungeon dwellers MUST think about the stuff I've discussed here if they are to be successful. Air, poop, food and sleep - and you START your journey to success.

Think about the TV shows, Survivor, or that new one on Discovery, The Colony, where people had to SURVIVE. What did they think about? In The Colony, they thought about air, because it was a plague-holocaust. Other than that, it was all about poop, food and sleep...

Help your dungeon become a place to SURVIVE for your denizens - and your PC raiders will love you for it. The first time a party in my campaign world ran into a dungeon privvy, they freaked out (Really? People POOP in D&D?!?!?!?)

Oh - and beef jerky makes for some GREAT treasure for SMART PC's to take with them. The first time a party grabbed a wagon-load of food-supplies and just DUMPED it at the door of a back-woods temple in a town that had been raided.... well, let's just say that the group is STILL hailed as heroes by the locals.

And, the first time a group is lured into a pit trap that was part of the middens (cesspool/sewer), they'll remember that day FOREVER.

Happy gaming!

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Updated 12-11-2010 at 10:35 PM by Malruhn

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