Dungeons & Dragons: How To Avoid Common Dungeon Crafting Mistakes

We discuss pitfalls to avoid when building a dungeon for your D&D group to ensure you avoid these design flaws and make a captivating experience.

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Avoid Common Dungeon Crafting Mistakes

A typical Dungeons & Dragons campaign features many dungeons—it's in the name. When done right, dungeons can be a high-octane, action-heavy romp with memorable twists and turns. When dungeons go wrong, they can feel like a long slog to progress the plot.

Like with most elements of tabletop RPGs, there's no wrong way to create a dungeon. That said, there are ways to generate more player-centric spaces that promote fun interactions and environmental storytelling. The best dungeon is the one that best suits your campaign and your group's play style. Keep players engaged by avoiding the most common dungeon crafting mistakes.

Think In 3D When Making Dungeon Designs

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Avoid Common Dungeon Crafting Mistakes

This mistake is pretty understandable. The maps we use to visualize D&D are typically rendered in 2D. This leads us to think about dungeons and other gameplay spaces as flat areas with only two dimensions of movement. Verticality is often forgotten—until one of your players asks a question you're unprepared for.

Thinking about a dungeon in 2D when designing the layout creates two potential problems. The first is that it's a poor representation of space. Life is in 3D, and there's no reason our fantasy TTRPG shouldn't be.

The second and potentially more serious problem is that your players might want to interact with the dungeon in more than two dimensions. If you're not prepared, this can mess with your plans.

D&D is full of ways to traverse vertically (Feather Fall, Levitate, etc.). When designing a dungeon, imagine you're dropped into it in first-person view. What vertical elements stand out? Could you easily add some vertical elements to facilitate interesting traversal or combat? How are your players likely to interact with what's there?

Make Your Dungeon Ecology Make Sense

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Avoid Common Dungeon Crafting Mistakes

Every DM's mileage will vary here, but it's a good idea to consider dungeon ecology on some level. In very old-school D&D, dungeons featured rooms full of monsters that would slaughter each other if they came into contact. This simply didn't make sense. Nowadays, DMs like to put a little thought into these spaces.

When populating a dungeon, consider why each monster or creature is there. What drove them to this space? Why do they stay? Where does their food come from? What's their relationship with the other inhabitants? Who's the biggest, toughest creature of them all? How does this creature enforce its will?

Players notice little details , and every little detail immerses them further into your world. Try to make dungeons where the monsters' common cause makes sense.

Different creatures with hostile relationships can occupy the same spaces if their size differences make sense. Humans often unwittingly cohabit with rats and other pests, for example. If the smaller monsters can find places to hide from the larger ones, they can work in a dungeon together.

Scale Your Dungeon Properly

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Avoid Common Dungeon Crafting Mistakes

One of D&D's most impressive qualities is its scale. No matter the budget, the team, or the talent, no movie or videogame can go full send epic the way a TTRPG can. But just because the sky's the limit on D&D's scale, it doesn't mean we should always go big.

Including dungeons with lots of superfluous rooms, encounters, monsters, and NPCs can distract from the story you're trying to tell. Little touches and details for plausibility are important.

But if your players could spend hours in your dungeon without progressing the adventure, consider a rework. Mega dungeons and deliberate dungeon crawl-style adventures are exceptions to this suggestion.

Avoid Creating Rooms That Serve No Purpose

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Avoid Common Dungeon Crafting Mistakes

Not every room needs an interesting, fantasy-adjacent theme. The denizens of the Forgotten Realms also need toilets, cloakrooms, storerooms, stables, kitchens, and sleeping areas.

Having a single word written on the DM's copy of the dungeon map is often enough. With the word "storeroom" scribbled on your map, you can quickly conjure up a detailed description for your players when they enter.

Think about where the inhabitants of your dungeon sleep, prepare food, practice their combat drills, etc. These considerations help you populate the space with items and give you an idea of where the inhabitants are and what they're doing at any given time.

Consider How Realistic Things Should Be

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Avoid Common Dungeon Crafting Mistakes

Running water needs a source; large creatures need hallways and doorways big enough to accommodate them. Every DM has a different tolerance for "realism." D&D is a fantasy game, so there's scope to ignore practical concerns or account for them.

Players may notice if a large creature occupies a room with a single, small entrance or exit. Because of his size, Professor Tolkien's Smaug must use the Lonely Mountain's main gate.

Clever writing allows for another passage too small to be worthy of his notice. It depends on the tone of your adventure, but thinking about size considerations can be worthwhile.

Torches, candles, braziers, and campfires don't burn indefinitely. Video games have conditioned us to expect the tunnels, hallways, and caverns in a D&D adventure to be well-lit. This is not how the game is written.

Darkvision is a useful ability for a reason. In D&D, players generally must provide their own light sources, accounting for this need before they leave town.

Consider How Video Game Logic Works In D&D

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Avoid Common Dungeon Crafting Mistakes

TTRPGs and video games have a lot in common. Although TTRPGs came first, the mediums now exist in a feedback loop, with great ideas bouncing between them.

Despite their similarities, TTRPGs and video games have some marked differences. Even the most choice-heavy, open-world video game has more restrictions than D&D.

Video game players dislike invisible walls and inexplicably locked doors. TTRPG players often just won't accept them. In D&D, there are ways to gate off areas (Wall of Force) and make doors incredibly hard to lockpick or destroy.

However, D&D players are notorious for becoming curious about what they can't get to. In video games, we accept that an area is locked off until we level up. In D&D, players need a more compelling in-gameexplanation.

Avoid Making Dungeons Too Complex Or Too Simple

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Avoid Common Dungeon Crafting Mistakes

D&D players dislike being railroaded through an adventure with little choice. However, they also get choice paralysis when confronted with too many options.

Generally, avoid giving your room more than three exits (even three can create lively discussion in the party). Dungeon layout is a complex topic. Generally, dungeon layouts stick to one of three archetypes: linear, branching, or circular.

Dungeon Type

Explanation

Linear Dungeons

Linear dungeons have a single entrance and exit. Although there may be side rooms, the way forward remains obvious. This type of dungeon can help keep newer players on track but can feel too on-rails for some people.

Branching Dungeons

Branching dungeons may have several exits with interconnecting paths and multiple ways to reach the endpoint. A branching design can be fun if your players love exploration, choices, and longer sessions in dungeons.

If your players tend to procrastinate or prefer a clear way forward, branching designs mightn't be the right choice.

Circular Dungeons

Skyrim introduced many players to circular dungeons. In these instances, progressing through the dungeon also returns the player to the entry point—usually through some previously unseen means. This type of design makes sense when the only alternative is asking the party to backtrack through the dungeon.

Experienced players often prefer more complex dungeons with branching paths and tricky choices. Newer groups may prefer it when their choices are limited, and the way to progress the adventure is clear. Experiment to see what your players respond best to.

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