Welcome once again to the weekly Nerdarchy Newsletter. This time we delve the dungeon. The random dungeon that is. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy, by signing up here.
We still have a little under a week for the Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition Kickstarter. Take a look at the Kickstarter page and discover the pledge level that’s best for you.
Random dungeon building, or semi-random, is a great way to get inspired and build something neither you nor your players will ever expect. Sometimes the fun with building a random dungeon or adventure is figuring out how it could make sense.
Plus, as a nerd I love rolling dice. I used to build random dungeon maps from the first edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide all the time as a teen playing.
But maybe you are in a slump and you aren’t sure where or what you want your players to do. Random charts can be a godsend, even if you only use them to get you started. Perhaps a couple of random rolls and you’ll have a theme for your dungeon. That theme might make zero sense for where the characters are in the game, perfect. In a world of fantasy and magic anything is possible. This could very well be an opportunity to create something unique in your world and game.
Why is there an arctic region in the center of a jungle or desert? Sure, you could just reroll, or you could try to weave a compelling story around this oddity creating something new and different your game world.
From Ted’s Head
Random is a very big word. It can mean literally anything is possible, and I am going to go in that direction. I will give you a list of resources I use when I need to come up with a dungeon and I am not prepared.
I am sure you have seen the Donjon website and the ability to enter in the information you are looking for like the theme of the dungeon and how big it is there. I use this site often when I need a map and do not want to do the work myself. If you are DMing from a laptop or device you can get a map in a matter of seconds and a few clicks. Your players may be none the wiser. It will even fill in monsters if you want to use their selection.
If you are looking for some other options there are Dungeonmorph dice. Both dice and card options allow you to create a dungeon on the fly. Use what you roll to make what is around the next corner or allow it to just inspire you to make something up. Rolling the dice behind the screen might set your players at unease — something a DM should do now and again. And since dice are so integral to the game now they can be for your dungeons as well.
If dice are not your thing then what about cards? Atmar’s Cardography from Creature Curation and Norse Foundry are an amazing resource I have begun using since I received them. The first set is Enter the Fiery Pits. I have been using this deck for random dungeon building in front of the screen and behind for months now and I have a lot of fun with it. Each deck comes with a module you can run or just use the cards to design your dungeon.
When adding random elements into your dungeon do not forget to include all three pillars. A dungeon is typically full of combat and heavy on the exploration with traps and puzzles. So make sure you find a way to give the players someone or something to roleplay with, too, even if it is just time to roleplay with each other.
From the Nerditor’s Desk
Confession time y’all: I don’t create dungeons. Maybe when I was a little kid, and that’s a definite maybe, I constructed maps on graph paper with all the little symbols from the dungeon key like the one included with Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. But these days? There’s no guarantee an adventure even has a dungeon, and certainly not one with a map drawn by me.
But I do borrow dungeons liberally from a lot of different places and there’s tons of resources out there for random dungeon building. From theoretical guidelines on dungeon building to nuts-and-bolts construction and everything in between, these days random dungeon building can be as simple as the click of a button or the roll of a few dice. As in so many scenarios, the best place to start looking for tips on random dungeon building is the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. Chapter 5 includes a succinct explanation of what a dungeon means in D&D, followed up with a series of tables you can work through to create dynamic dungeons in very little time.
The first of these tables, and the most important part of dungeon building, is the location. Where in your campaign world does this structure stand? Like any random generator table, you can roll to get a result or choose the one you like. A dungeon location might be enough inspiration for you to go from there on your own. If a dungeon “in several connected mesas” makes the wheels of your imagination start turning, run with it. Or maybe you roll on the Exotic Location table and wind up with “on the back of a Gargantuan living creature.”
From there your dungeon becomes more defined by determining who or what created it for what purpose, who lives there and the place’s history. You’ll notice by this point, we know a lot about our dungeon but we don’t know how it is put together and operates. And we don’t have an adventure for the characters in our story to partake in. Instead, we have a collection of elements that help us tell the story of the player characters through their interactions with this dungeon environment.
But fear not, Dungeon Master — our dungeon will have a map suitable to challenge a party of adventurers! This too comes right out of the DMG in Appendix A: Random Dungeons. There’s a pretty robust guide to random dungeon building that’ll guide you through laying out all the chambers and corridors of your adventure location.
Protip: during this process keep in mind all the wonderful information you generated earlier about your dungeon location as you sketch out the passages and rooms. If your dungeon location is buried in a sandstorm, where a neutral evil Elemental Water cult built a stronghold where the original creators were destroyed by a natural disaster, you may come up with your own cool ideas to add. Maybe the cult has a water weird bound to a profane fountain and the randomly generated room you just drew would look neat with big fountain in the center.
Random dungeon building is baked right into the fabric of D&D. A Dungeon Master isn’t called that without reason! Many adventurers in D&D history began their quest at the dungeon entrance, ready to delve inside, overcome the traps, hazards and monsters laid out by the DM. Survival meant treasure, and maybe vanquishing some evil along the way.
For a new group of D&D players today, random dungeon building from the DMG might very well be the assumed default way to play. And that’s great! All the terrific published campaigns and adventures out there aside, rolling a few dice and coming up with your own original dungeon is a tremendous return on investment. You could do a lot worse than a D&D campaign as a series of dungeon delves into randomly created environments.
Outside of the DMG, here are some of my favorite resources for random dungeon building.
Oath of the Frozen King Adventure Kit, from Absolute Tabletop: the Dice Drop Adventure Generator uses a roll of the dice — literally — to determine the shape and layout of the dungeon and what’s in it, with each die not only representing a different room but having its own table of random content. Very cool and innovative!
Donjon: Oodles of random generators on this free website including, of course, a random dungeon generator. You can adjust variables like size, shape and motif and it will generate not only a map and details like the history and lighting, but also wandering monsters, traps, hazards and room contents along with mechanical elements like DCs.
Atmar’s Cardography: A collection of five dungeon building card deck modules, each one has a complete adventure usable as a sprawling dungeon complex, a smaller quest location or a randomly generated dungeon created by drawing and placing room cards on the table.
The one thread running through all these random dungeon building resources is a strong theme or motif. Knowing where your dungeon is located and who built it is perhaps the most important factor for a DM, so when you’re guiding players through their adventure you have a foundation to aid in your descriptions of the place. You could take the same dungeon with all its corridors and chambers, and changing up the set dressing can create entirely different experiences.
Until next time, stay nerdy!
— Nerdarchy Team
Don’t forget to check out the Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition Kickstarter page!