Dungeons are definitely the fun part of the game for everyone. The DM usually enjoys it because it makes prep work a cinch! Players love it because the action is more fluid and they make for lots of opportunities for decisions to be made.
With mapping software available for free all over the web, constructing maps is much easier today then it was back when I first started. We did have some tricks to doing it, besides the good ol’ fashioned graph paper. Namely this was stealing maps from published modules and re-keying the things. You could make them new or old, wealthy or deserted for eons, the possibilities are near infinite!
Today, people kind of tend to go crazy. You can, literally drive yourself cross-eyed considering all of the dungeon logic. Many Dungeon Masters keep a set pull-list of monsters for different areas, while others ponder the very deep workings of the dungeon world itself. Me personally could give a rats tail about it. The most important thing that I consider is always what works fast and easy. I do have my own tricks though.
The first question that I ask myself when starting is what lives here? If I have an idea, or I already told the players what they are supposed to be looking for, then I don’t have a problem, but if I’m in a saucy mood and want to keep things random, then I’ll roll a monster at random from my notes. This is easier for me since I play in the World of Greyhawk, and the random encounter lists are complete. If this isn’t the case for you, the Monstrous Compendium Volume 2 has a complete listing of Random Encounters for a veriety of settings.
The monster that I roll is the dominate monster in this dungeon. It has conquered this place and lives in it, at least for the time being. Its laws are the way, naturally with wild animals also living in the place, some areas will be too dangerous for the humanoids to live (if it is a humanoid), these areas will probably be avoided, and may incorporate a trap of some kind as it is considered a natural hazard. A simple lure to trick others who aren’t so savvy as them, to wander into the hazard and get themselves killed.
We also have to figure out how big we want the thing to be. Many random dungeon generators, such as the one which I sometimes use from the first edition DMG, will go on for days with no end in sight. We have to figure out how deep we want to go with this, and how big of an area that we want to take up. This is best figured out before we even put the digital pencil to paper. A large dungeon will support more life then a small one, and there may be more dominate creatures down there fighting it out about who is in control. If you want to make a rivalry, then simply roll another random encounter check and find out what the second most dangerous thing down there is.
FOOD & PROPERTY
Now we start moving into some headache area here. This is where some DMs like to give themselves trouble, but they are on the right track! Food is a basic need that our monsters can’t live without! Depending on the monster, and their ability to adapt their environments around them, offers us different questions and problems. The simplest answer is looking at the definition in the Monster Manual, the MM will tell you their basic life strategies. Most monsters steal for a living, they find weaker beings who are good at raising their own food, and they take it.
It is rare to find monsters who keep their own stock of underground meat, they just don’t know how to feed and maintain animals like that. Hell, they don’t wash themselves and rely on inhuman constitution to survive. The dungeon world is one filled with disease and rotten icky things because of our next consideration.
What does the monster do with its waste? The answer is usually that this is somebody else’s problem. A monster will move in and use up every available resource that it can, and then it will move on to a new hovel. Of course, this sets the scene for a new monster to take over the dungeon, and brand new dangers. A fun dungeon can be one that has been abandoned. Not only will they leave their mess behind, which will cause the place to be a haven for new nastiness that lives off of stuff like that, but they will also leave their sick, injured, and weak behind as well. These things will be extremely dangerous, as they are starving and terrified, perhaps even mad from loneliness and confinement.
Part of my Quick & Easy mentality dictates that, for the most part, monsters are like pirates. They are typically as drunk and as lazy as possible, of course I mix it up so that nobody can tell what I’m doing. I’ll give some monsters a need or an industry of some kind, this way it is harder to tell what I’m doing behind the screen.
Water is a basic necessity for us, and for lots of creatures, however for the most part, a bunch of stinky monsters would turn their nose up at it. They would rather have booze and only bathe by happenstance. If there is a water supply, some monsters would love to just sit there and throw stuff in it for entertainment, same thing with really deep holes. If a monster is really destructive, such as the Troll, then after the creature leaves the water will be no good, and this could effect the upper world if we want it to.
A monster who depends on water would treat a water-source like gold, and defend it to the death unless another source was known. Water is a good place for natural hazards, the monsters who depend upon it will keep the ones who don’t out of that area, and use them to keep intruders out. Most humanoids will leave aquatic nightmares completely alone! This logic keeps our water supplies untainted unless it serves us to do otherwise.
WHY AIN’T THIS HOLE INFESTED WITH DWARFS?
Another thing to consider, before putting the pen to paper and drawing out your map, is to figure out what this hole is for. Who built it? Is it natural or was it constructed by someone or something?
The word Dungeon, as we use it, is a very confusing thing if you think about it. Rarely do we ever create dungeons that are really dungeons! For the most part, we could care less who made it, but sometimes it can be fun to figure it out. Was it an ancient culture? Even this question can bring some different answers, what with all of the demi-humans running around. Why did they move out, or abandon it? It could be a mystery as we all have similar problems here on this planet. This also can be used to figure out what the holes original purpose was. Was it a mine? A basement to some long forgotten and quite absent castle? Was it a secret church? A tomb? Perhaps remnants of ancient astronauts; with fantasy, anything is possible. A look into our own history gives us many of factual reasons why a large underground superstructure would be made.
While we must know who is the current holders of the dungeon, it can also be beneficial to know who, or what held it before they did; and how long ago had it been sitting. Has it been looted? If it’s got monsters, then the answer is probably yes. The questions are endless, but there is just something about building our own dungeon that lends to these creative decisions.
We can create mystery with open-ended scenarios and rooms which don’t belong, so just because something doesn’t make sense on the outside, we can hint at things which may or may not be. We must try to do our best NOT to over think the fun out of these things. We don’t want to know everything, but we should know just enough to make it look like we do.
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