So, we’ve been quiet on this front; if anyone has any suggestions or requests for new GM Tips, please, speak up!
This week I’m going to talk about building a dungeon; not so much the nitty-gritty of designing and balancing an encounter, although we’ll cover that eventually when I find someone who can do that better than I can. Designing and balancing encounters isn’t as easy as it looks, but actually doing the layout and figuring out what’s going on and why.
This is more for people who’ve never built a dungeon before, and are going around going ‘ahhh! what do I dooooo!’ – well, first, don’t panic. Grab a pencil and some graph paper, or your photo-manipulation program of choice, and take a deep breath.
You may want something to take notes on; if I’m building a dungeon from scratch, I usually have paper for the mapping portion, and several PDFs and a Notepad file open at the same time. You can use whatever combination that works.
So. The first thing. Location, location, location! Where are you building your dungeon? Is it a swampy maze that might have some underground/indoor segments? A ruined tower, or forgotten castle sunk into the mire, say? A cavern leading deep under ground? A forgotten temple?
This is important, because this gives you some idea what kinds of things will have moved in. You will not, for example, usually find desert-dwelling predators in a swamp, or arctic denizens in the desert. You may have similar creatures, but not exactly the same ones. If you want trolls, but you’re in the desert, there’s a good chance there are trolls that will suit your desert ruins.
So. You have your lost temple; say in the foothills of That Creepy Mountain Range. This means your spread of denizens is pretty broad; you can have the usual monsterous humanoids; orcs, trolls, goblins .. or you could have human bandits. Maybe you have a family of ogres, or giants lurking around on your Random Encounter chart. Yes. Make a specific chart; you’ll thank me later when you’re not fielding questions about why there was a sphinx in the alpine mountains. Unless you /want/ a sphinx in the alpine mountains, but that is PLOT, and that’s another matter. Note that if you have a certain level requirement, but you still want to have goblins, you have the option of giving the little stinkers class levels to make them nastier opponents. You also have the option of altering them slightly; no one follows kobolds into their lair? Well, maybe your goblins are alchemical prodigies, and their traps make a kobold warren look safe….. you have options. Maybe their minotaur slave is actually their minotaur overlord, and things have gotten strange; the players don’t know, but they’ll have a good time trying to survive figuring it out!
Now. Here’s where the graph paper comes in. Plotting your layout for a lost temple in the Creepy Alpine Mountains shouldn’t be too difficult; just remember that in addition to main worship space and entry halls, most temples have quarters for their priests, acolytes and other staff members, basic utility spaces (kitchen, laundry, latrines, live stock husbandry), and many also have a library. Some will have extensive bathing space; some very fancy, others more utilitarian.
Now. Lost Temples are usually not empty temples; even if the original builders are gone, something inevitably will move in. Exactly what is up to you, but remember; the Creepy Alpine Mountains are more likely to have orcs and leucrotta than they are sphinx or giant scorpions.
Go through the books, start figuring out what might be living there and why. Figure out some hooks and details; if you have something truly exotic, like that aforementioned Sphinx, what the heck is she doing there? Is he a prisoner? Are they running the joint? If you’re doing this in reaction to something going on in game, there is probably a ready-made reason built right in; but if you’re doing it for a nebulous game that hasn’t happened yet, you’ll want to figure out some reasons. Remember that circumstances and terrain can alter a given monster’s challenge rating significantly; the monsters using strategy can alter it more. The number of times I’ve nearly killed a party with a minor threat that they never saw coming is legion. Design a random encounter list, if that sort of thing appeals. Then figure out what the current denizens of the temple consider to be a ‘normal day’. Work out their routine; somebody has to make the rounds of the warg dens. Watch rotations may be set, if not always followed to military precision. Someone has to hunt and prepare food. Are there likely to be explosions in the labs? Is someone researching a spell to drag a Horrible Demon to the Material Plane? Figure out the normal routine. Then, figure out what happens when that routine is disrupted; what alarms are sounded, and why. What happens when an intruder is detected. The place having a life without the players presence will give it a sense of reality, and grounding. Some groups don’t handle this kind of living world very well, but if you’re designing dungeons for them, I tend to expect they’ve grown out of static worlds and MMO-style gaming.
Figure out what kinds of treasure and other rewards are there. Some of these may be useful as hooks for further stories; use that! Or hooks for the players; whatever it takes, eh? You may throw a bunch of stuff out before you’re done; don’t worry. Your players will never notice. See commentary about alchemical prodigies and minotaur overlords above; tropes are meant to be abused. Used. Uh. Right. Moving on …
If you’re running table top, be sure you have enough miniatures of the right kinds. If you have time, get some and paint them. Reaper’s Bones minis are cheap and practically indestructable and I don’t get paid to recommend them. If you don’t have that kind of time, space or materials, there are pre-paints all over, and some of them are decent.
If you’re running PbP or VoIP, you will need images, and to scan or otherwise digitalise your map. Find an artist who draws the kinds of things you want and beg shamelessly to throw money at them for their services; this is the least likely to get you in trouble for theft.
Maps can be scanned or photographed and uploaded to … ideally, your own space. I also see wikidots used, and a few other options. If you’re using Roll20 or D20Pro, you won’t need to worry about hosting. I think. I don’t know from Roll20, but D20Pro allows you to upload images, maps and handouts, more or less directly.
I’m not being paid to mention any of these sites, services or merchandise, and I don’t expect to be.