Practicing the art and skill of building worlds.

Averald: A Fantasy Sandbox, part 6

In part 5, we designed a whole adventure, but we’re not done yet! Depending on how we decide to run our game, a dungeon map might be in order.

Now, first off, you should know that I’m not talking about those old-school megadungeons, which are totally cool, but not my style — I subscribe to the dungeon-as-a-metaphor school of thought. (Although I’m not talking about an “adventure flowchart” at this point either. More on that later.) Instead, I’m talking about the map of an area where there will be exploration and encounters.[1]

Step 7:
Make some decisions about your dungeon — what exactly the players/characters want from it, how it should start and end, points of interest (including hazards), and rewards you want to give the players. And then… well… get to drawing!

To map an explorable area, think of it as a whole adventure in miniature. Remember the things I said every adventure needs (goal, hook, obstacles, climax, reward)? A “dungeon” needs similar things.

  • An exit (goal) — this is where the players are trying to get to. Sometimes, the exit is the same as the entrance, but it can be difficult to make a dungeon “flow” when that’s the case. Some ideas about that later.
  • An entrance (hook) — there needs to be a way into the area, of course. A path through the woods, a narrow alley, a cave behind a waterfall, a mountain pass, or just a big ol’ door. Whatever works.
  • Points of interest (and, of course, obstacles) — well, you could just just have a straight path with nothing in it, but that hardly warrants mapping, right? So fill it up with interesting things to discover, and keep in mind that not all of them have to be pleasant.[2]  Put one of these points of interest in each “room” of the dungeon.
  • Object (climax) — it’s not just about getting in and out; the players are wandering about this area for a reason — what is it? In any explorable area, they’re generally looking for something — an item, a monster, or just for loot. The “climax” of a dungeon is the shrine where the ancient artifact is entombed, or the lair of that powerful vampire, or that gigantic pile of gold. The players want something, so give it to them! Or… you know, at least wave it in their faces until they drool.[3]
  • Reward — the PCs will doubtlessly pick up a few things (items, gold, experience, information) during the course of exploring the dungeon. Rather than letting it all be determined randomly, though, try to tailor a small list of planned rewards according to your players. Make it worth everyone’s while.[4]

Question time!

  • What is the object of this dungeon? For this particular dungeon, the object is to get the captured girls. They will be trapped in a web cage near the end of the dungeon.
  • Where does the dungeon start? The entrance is basically just a giant hole-in-the-ground cave entrance.
  • Where does the dungeon end? The caves will lead into the bottom of a ruined tower.
  • What interesting things would I like to put in this dungeon? An underground river, a place where the spiders will attack from above, the lair of an unrelated monster, a room that is empty (at least, by the time the PCs get to it), a “cage” containing the captured girls, and the bottom floor of the tower.

Now, start planning out your dungeon. Start with a shape you like, then find places for all your points of interest. If you end up with rooms you don’t know what to do with, feel free to come up with more things, or just leave them empty. Here, I added a nest of baby spiders and a cave-in.

As I’m drawing it out, I try to make sure the dungeon “flows” by drawing a line through the path from the entrance to the exit. While there are some optional side caves (not so optional if the characters fall in the river in the large area — they’ll be washed down the river to the small side-area,) all of the important points are on that line, without much backtracking or wandering.

At this point, you’re pretty much done. Label the rooms (with letters or numbers or something) for reference, so you can keep track of your notes on them. You can just describe the rooms as the players go through them, and they never have to see this mess. If you want (and of course I do) to go all out, you can redraw it to use for displaying or for a virtual tabletop or whatever.

Here’s my finished map, and my notes for each room. You might have noticed (here, and in the last post) that I haven’t included any monster stats or die rolls or anything — I’ll decide these things when I decide what system I’m going to use (right now, probably Chimera) but for now, these notes are enough for me.

  • [a] — A large hole in the ground leads down into this cave. Fist-sized spiders scurry out of the way down the tunnel as the characters enter.
  • [b] — A large, rocky cavern covered in spiderwebs. A 15-foot-wide crack runs through it, and water can be heard flowing at the bottom of it. (Characters who fall in will be swept through some tunnels and come out in [d] where the river slows down.) There are four tunnels leading out of this cavern (not including the entrance), two of which are on the other side of the crack. When the characters get about ten feet from the  entrance, a group of giant spiders will drop down around them and attack.
  • [c] — Little spiders scurry all around this room. At the sight of the characters, they will  flee to an egg-laden web on one side of the room, where a huge spider sits. On the other side of the room there is a tunnel. If the characters get within ten feet of the web, the giant spider will rush out to attack them; otherwise she will stay put and protect the eggs.
  • [d] — A small (but deep) lake is here.
  • [e] — This room is devoid of spiders. There are tree tunnels leading out of it. The tunnel to [g] will collapse when a character attempts to walk through it.
  • [f] — This tunnel seems to be a dead end. It ends in an odd wall of what seems to be tightly-packed, uniformly-shaped pebbles. (Actually a giant lizard’s skin — it is sleeping in its lair.) If disturbed, it will awaken and attack. If badly injured, it will flee back into its lair and up through a tunnel to the surface. The lair itself is just a hole leading up to the surface. The ancient remains of an adventurer may be here.
  • [g] — There is an odd pile of rocks against one wall. A group of spiders guards this room. If the characters did not collapse the tunnel to [f], one of the spiders will immediately flee through it, never to be seen again; otherwise, it will attempt to flee through the other tunnel. There is some web above the tunnel; if disturbed, it will cause the tunnel to collapse.
  • [h] — A cage of web surrounds a small group of young girls, who cry for help when the characters approach. Several will point furiously upward toward the characters when they come through the tunnel from [b]. A giant spider lurks above the tunnel from [b]; it will immediately attack the last character to come through the tunnel.
  • [i] — The remains of a storage area are here. Whatever was stored here is long since decayed and useless. There are a few broken wooden crates and barrels, all empty. A ruined stone staircase is here, going up. If it escaped through the tunnel to [b], the cowardly spider will be here; it will flee up the stairs when the characters enter the room.

[1] This isn’t sufficiently different from a dungeon map that I’ve felt the need to find a new name for it, but different enough that I feel the need to clarify. Suffice to say that though I’m calling them “dungeon maps,” the maps do not necessarily have to be of dungeons. Just explorable areas.

[2] Or, for that matter, horrific. If everything the players inspect tries to eat them, they’ll stop trying to inspect things, and you don’t want that. Carrot and stick.

[3] A postponed climax can make a great hook for the next adventure, if used well and sparingly. Maybe the characters approach the shrine, only to find the ancient artifact already gone! Perhaps the lich escapes, cursing the characters and vowing revenge. Maybe the pile of gold is more trouble than it’s worth. Do this too often, though, and your players will start to feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football.

[4] Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that every dungeon needs to have a sword, a dagger, a bow, and a magic scroll. Players are interested in more than just shiny new pieces of equipment. If a player is really into his character, hint at information related to the character’s personal goals or backstory. If another player likes to roleplay, include a new NPC that can be used as a source of roleplaying opportunities. For a player who’s something of a know-it-all, provide clues to a mystery that he can figure out so he can feel smart — and so you can show off your setting, of course. Find a way to let a player use a skill he’s really proud of, especially if his interest in that subject is unique among the group. If one player put a ridiculous amount of points into the dancing skill, find a reason for him to shake that moneymaker. Know your players, not just their characters, and let everybody feel special every once in a while. And yes, drop some shinies on them occasionally, too!


3 responses

  1. Cool map! A nice reminder that dungeons don’t have to be ginormous and adventures don’t have to be overly complicated.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:29 am

  2. It’s good to see that you’re actually still around. It took me several months to find out that you moved this from it’s old place. I know it’s kind of ‘your thing’ to just up and disappear for half a year, but, still. I get kind of concerned, especially because literally every other trace I could find of you just stops dead in the middle of March. Although, seeing that this is already over a month old, chances are you’ve abandoned this too, but I’d be a fool not to say anything.

    This seems solid, straightforward, and simple. Which is probably exactly what you want. You don’t want to spend forever dealing with just spiders, after all. I certainly have to nod my head with footnote two (and three to a lesser extent). I’ve certainly experienced examples of literally everything trying to kill you for this, though for the life of me I can’t come up with a name.

    July 29, 2012 at 12:43 am

    • It’s Acra! D’:

      I got a new job and my work schedule has been brutal. That, plus the writing and the classes and the writing, and… well, I’ve been busy. Still, I guess I should probably check in every once in a while so people don’t think I died or something.

      “I know it’s kind of ‘your thing’ to just up and disappear for half a year, but, still.”

      …Oh my god, that is ‘my thing.’ D: That’s a terrible ‘thing’ to have! I always say, “I won’t let that happen again,” but then it does.

      I have a website now (well, I’ve had it since like March but it’s actually up and working and only mostly full of test crap at this point) which is why the blog has gone a little… abandoned. I was planning on moving it but that didn’t happen as fast as I thought. *understatement*

      September 27, 2012 at 10:59 am

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