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D&D Dungeon Design: How big is too big?

It’s right in the name of the game Dungeons & Dragons. For decades we’ve all sat there with our graph paper or loose leaf and sketched out maps for terrifying dungeons. Some dungeons now even have a place in the game history like Tomb of Horrors. Over time dungeons have even evolved to a thing called the megadungeon, much like Rappan Athuk from Frog God Games or Undermountain as featured in the upcoming Dungeon of the Mad Mage. These super dungeons are huge and go on for days, with shortcuts through out just to get back to the surface occasionally. These aren’t designed for your typical “Go in, kill the goblins, loot and run out” adventures. The big question for dungeon design now is, how big is too big? You don’t want the party to say they’re done part way through, and you don’t want to be designing it and toss the map aside in exhaustion. Let’s look at some things that should help you mentally with dungeon design and how it relates to your story.

dungeon design megadungeon

Dungeon design basics

How does the dungeon fit in your story?

When you first start designing a dungeon, it’s usually in relation to some sort of plot point in a story. These plot points can determine the type of dungeon, denizens within, location and loot. Not necessarily in that order either.

Let’s look at a traditional plot hook. The villain has kidnapped the mayor’s daughter. When going this route, you’ve already created the villain. In this case we’ll go the jilted lover who was never good enough for the mayor, and the cliché rogue with powerful underground connections. If the mayor is from a powerful city you would most likely create a sewer network with hidden catacombs beneath. This is where it becomes tricky to determine size, but you know how the dungeon fits in the story. Knowing this dungeon is under the city you can link it to the main plot easily and determine what’s in the dungeon.

If the mayor is from a small town, they may not have a sewer system. Maybe the rogues’ guild controls a warehouse in a poor section of town or on the outskirts. This allows you as the Dungeon Master to create a smaller area. One or two buildings and maybe an escape tunnel.

How much do you draw?

This is the tricky part. Looking at the case of the sewer lair you could have a very large dungeon here. Do you draw the whole sewers, plus the catacombs? Do you draw just the path in the sewers then the catacomb? This is where it’s best to look to the players. If the players in your group get distracted easily or want fast paced adventures, drawing a minimal amount is probably the best choice. The other option is to draw out as much as you want but highlight a path to where they have to go. That way you can have everything drawn if you run it a second time for a group that would rather explore than try to speed run.

One caveat to remember is depending on your group, the more you make the more they want to break. Players sometimes look at adventuring much like a video game — how do I break it, how do I make it easy, and how do I win? Try not to let this discourage you. If they want to win, draw a little extra in the dungeon and put something there they can win over that won’t affect your game. A giant crocodile, or an ogre hiding can work great.

How many floors should it have?

This I find ties back into your story. If you are going to stop a mad wizard, there’s a good chance of going the traditional tower route. A tower generally has 4-8 floors. If your wizard tower dungeon as 15 floors and 7 basements you might have over achieved a bit here. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: Or you may have created your very own megadungeon, in which case, congratulations!] Additionally, you may go with a haunted house, in which case you’re probably looking at 4 floors: downstairs, upstairs, attic and basement — or you could take a nod from Death House and add an extra floor in there to make things extra dangerous for the party. You want to keep these things somewhat realistic. I know, you all just pointed out it’s a fantasy game. I mean realistic in regard to the characters in it. If you have an aged wizard he’s not going to want to walk 15 floors of tower. If you want to go 15 floors, consider a mode of transportation within the tower. Maybe there is a runic circle on every floor that can move you to different floors.

When does it become a megadungeon?

A dungeon becomes a megadungeon when you want your whole game to be that one dungeon. It could be a mysterious mine outside of town. People go into it all the time but rarely come out. The reason they rarely come out is because several floors down in the mine they built another town. Maybe there is another new world under there with different civilizations. Rappan Athuk did a fantastic job of showing this as well as the old Undermountain game. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: As always if you head to the Frog God Games store use Nerdarchy’s exclusive coupon code STAY-NERDY-30 for a 30 percent discount on anything in the store, available twice per user.]

When you decide that you are going to go the megadungeon route though you must keep some things in mind. One, how do the players resupply? Two, how is life sustained this far down? Three, how do levels scale down here? Four, when do you stop designing?

A megadungeon is on the same scale in size as a campaign. Much like a campaign you don’t want to burn yourself out in the design process and call it quits. Take you time, make notes as you go, and I recommend making each floor its own adventure. Characters can build a reputation with the creatures in it and maybe learn new unique ways of travel.

I hoped this helped you out with your dungeon design quandaries or at least helped you put some parts of it in perspective. A dungeon should be fun to build and play. If you get burnt out designing it, your players will get burnt out playing it. Keep it fun, intriguing, and exciting. No one wants to be 4 floors down in a dungeon to find out there’s another 20 just to kill a goblin and recover a paper. If you’re players start the game session asking “Are we still here?” then you might want to consider ignoring a few floors and moving them along.

Keep drawing, keep designing and enjoy folks. I’m back to designing my own dungeon. Cheers!

If you feel ambitious and want to give it a shot at creating your own megadungeon, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted share some tips and suggestions in the video below. Got any advice of your own on dungeon design to share? Sound off in the comments!

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Long time RPG enthusiast, I first started with D&D back when I was 7, then jumped back into it again at 14 when I could understand what I was reading. I’ve tinkered as a story teller in many different game systems from Gurps, to Vampire, to most recently in Savage Worlds: Rippers Ressurected, though I’ve never forgotten my love for D&D.

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Tech Support at Sobeys Inc.

Long time RPG enthusiast, I first started with D&D back when I was 7, then jumped back into it again at 14 when I could understand what I was reading. I've tinkered as a story teller in many different game systems from Gurps, to Vampire, to most recently in Savage Worlds: Rippers Ressurected, though I've never forgotten my love for D&D.

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