The Classic Player Dungeon Mapping Style

When I had first started gaming, we used a style that we don’t use anymore. The Dungeon Master would tell us very specific things about the place that we were in, and another player would draw it on graph paper, mapping our progress. The point behind this was not OCD, it was because we knew that we were in a labyrinth, basically playing “find the flag”, the map that we had told us where we had already been and gave us clues as to where to go.

We abandoned this style many years ago for something more descriptive, it wasn’t intentional, it just happened. Underground complexes got smaller, and easier to manage, I wanted the underground section to only last a session or two. We all know that they call it a “Dungeon Crawl” for a reason, it slows down the game. Most of my story would take place above ground, with the dungeon typically being the climax. They weren’t ever all that long, it wasn’t anything so advanced that the players really needed a map, they were more or less cattle shoots, my monsters were finite, I knew exactly how many beings were down there, they weren’t static, but it was possible for the players to kill every last one of them and successfully clear a dungeon.

If I had a feeling that the dungeon was larger than what can be accomplished in one session, I’d create rooms that could easily be made safe, the players didn’t have to worry about this. Once they killed the big bad boss, the scenario was over, they got their treasure, we calculated XP, and the next scene would take place back at the inn or whatever. All of this is incredibly lazy. It was instituted to make play faster, more story-like. Also, now that I think about it, more video game-like.

A few years ago, one of my players wanted to DM, he had bought the Forgotten Realms box set Undermountain and he never got a chance to actually use it, so I rolled up a character and let him DM. We had a great time until we found the entrance that we were looking for, then he suddenly started telling us how long the hallways were, how big the rooms were, boring colorless information. Once in a while he’d give us a real description, but not to often. We all laughed and ribbed him about it for years, assuming that he was just that rusty at game mastering. We had him convinced that the error was his, but now that I think about it, the error was ours.

He was playing a different game, we were playing one of our typical story driven games that we were used to, and he was playing that classic style of old-school D&D. Instead of listening to what he was telling us, turning around and grabbing the old fashioned graph paper, a ruler, and some tape; we laughed at him. Here is the deal, as soon as we crawled down into that hole, and failed to start mapping our progress, we were dead. Total Party Kill. We just didn’t have the sense to know that we were dead. Our characters are still down there, either dead from starvation, eaten by some hideous beast, or enslaved by something even worse. It didn’t end well.


I used to cringe at the mere thought of such things, today they are referred to as Underdark so technically they are still with us, but for the most part and by most tables, ignored for whatever reason. I think that the reason why we ignore it so much is that Dungeon Crawls as my table uses them today are incredibly slow, I cringe about drawing them out even further, and I kind of associate them with my early days of DMing, when I was still learning and not very good at all, but here is the weird thing, I didn’t hardly ever run this style of game. I quickly abandoned it and instead worked on descriptions and ways to bring NPCs alive. I played that style WAY more than I ran it. I associate it with our days of sitting down and actually drawing PC Player Sheets because we couldn’t afford to buy them. I also am always going to be in a state where I am unlearning, just when I think that I have all of the Edition lies wiped from my mind, I find something like this that is still there, and it is telling me that Mega-Dungeons aren’t fun. That they are old-fashioned and were just something that people used to do. That they limit games and hog the spotlight. I could go on and on, but none of it is really true.

As a DM I still prefer Graph Paper when doing my mapping. To me it is a lot faster and easier than using a computer. I have also gotten lazy about the size of my maps, esthetically, a one sheet map is pleasing, but what is esthetically pleasing isn’t always what is best for the game. I have also gotten in the habit of cheating with my maps. Instead of charting them accurately, I’ll make notations, like ‘This passage really extends 4 miles’ when the players hit it during play, I roll for 1 encounter and skip all the way to the end of the passage, which is horrible!

I digress, when we took away Graph Paper as a player tool, I feel that we dumbed down the game, there are things that this style allows that you can’t achieve when you don’t use it. While initially it is slow, and the DM will have to refigure how to accomplish his descriptions, we can do something that we can’t normally do, which is change the map. Advanced users enjoy making sure that their monsters aren’t static, but we do it in a very static environment, when the players draw their own map, we can bring the dungeons truly alive. We can damage the environment and cause the players to rethink things because they can detect them, they have their own map right there!

It also provides a game which your players won’t expect, typically, in your modern game once you find the flag (the boss), the game is over, but with this method, you now have the added challenge of navigating and fighting your way back out, while you are injured from your initial target. Actually escaping this thing successfully becomes a reward all unto itself.

 Reviving the Mega-Dungeon Concept

Drawing a map is a skill, DMs have it but players may not, so just handing them a sheet of graph paper and leaving them to it will probably just lead to frustration. Even if they had played this way in the past, they’ll need a little bit of time to re-acquire the old skill set, and we DMs will have to acquire it too, as it is really up to us to give them descriptions accurately so that they can draw the map. It is best to start gradually.

Create a Novice Dungeon, which will probably be bigger than what you had done in the past. You want lots of passages, but mind the doors! You are going to find things in this Novice Dungeon that you did wrong and only serve to make accurately describing the dungeons too difficult. During regular play, we can put 3 doors on the side of a passageway, but how are you going to describe these doors to your players in a way that they can map? Our design has to factor this in. It is fine to add detail, but pay attention to what is happening.

Perhaps it would be best to have the players find a map, which you hand them partially completed. The map itself is old and is now inaccurate, but they won’t know this. This map should have your basic symbols on them, Doors, secret doors, traps, ambushes, stuff like that, but it is only a partial map. At some point they will encounter a blockage, one that they can’t bypass and are forced to leave the safety of this map and start charting their own progress. Since this is a novice scenario, create the map with them. If they make errors, correct them right away so that they can fix it. This helps the DM too, you cannot allow yourself to give them bad descriptions.


Now we’ll play a similar scenario, roughly the same size, but have them go in blind. They will be creating the map, and if we were satisfied with our progress from the novice play-test, we’ll let them make this map independently.  We won’t help with the process, and not check it ourselves until the players have found the flag. Once the goal has been completed, we’ll ask to see the map that they created and check it. If it is inaccurate then they had failed the scenario and must find their way back out, but if they succeeded, you can start using the more advanced methods.


The focus need not be on play-testing, I’d suggest keeping it core to your campaign.

If you need to, light the dungeon the first couple of times. Once you are comfortable with this style, then you can start limiting the descriptions to just the field of view, which allows more of a complex dungeon to be designed.  The light will also clearly show the boundaries of our gaming scenario. Leaving the map should not be allowed until the basic skills have been mastered.

Traditionally, the deeper that you go, the harder the monsters, sometimes there are stairs, but sometimes there isn’t, it is a ramp that may not be detectable unless there is a dwarf, gnome, or Halfling in the party.  If you want to be nice, you can show them how to draw one-dimensional maps, a hall that extends under or over a room and doesn’t dead end is a clue that you’ve changed levels and it is time to start a new map.

Stocking a big map like this is exactly like stocking a large city map, you’ll have your triggered events, but mostly it will be randomly generated, so put some care into creating your tables. It helps to break the dungeon down into sections, with each section having its own random encounters lists.  It doesn’t hurt to have non-combat events either, but make sure that these are temporary, if they aren’t, you’ll have to add them to the map.

Drawing always aids my creativity, I think about ecology and what is happening in this place. The dungeon itself tells me a story, for the most part, the halls are made of either rough or worked stone, if this changes, if they enter a section of hall that has something different than that, then I will tell them.  I don’t make a complete key, as we don’t know what rooms the players will and won’t explore, and I hate doing too much work. Much of the fine details can be established during play. I might mark a trap, and then if the players stumble into it I’ll iron out the fine details. The most important thing is the maze itself, this should be logical, as we’ll be using the structure to give clues.  If the players fully map around a small section of map, that may indicate a secret room. It is okay for halls to dead-end, this place is old and has been modified for centuries to fit the needs of different occupants.


This style is very easy to master, and its benefits are to be explored. We’ll be able to do things that we couldn’t normally do if the players didn’t make a map; Things that normally would present problems, or have to be rehashed over and over again. They shouldn’t be mapping just to map, there should be a benefit of some kind, it will allow them to avoid traps, and ambushes, tell them where they had been so they don’t run around in circles. You can make weird effects happen, like all of their metal equipment turns to wood when they walk through a pillar, when they walk back through it, the effect reverses. You can get really creative and wild here!

If you had never done this before, then there are probably some things in the handbooks which may not had made sense to you before, that could be because it is assuming that you are playing this style, it’s built into the system. In this environment it is safe to really cut loose, make it as deadly as you want, all of those unfair monsters that newbies bitch about, this is where you use them. They don’t have to walk through a section that is trapped, it is faster, but they’ll pay with damage, they can take a different route if they want to, or this was planned and they have to walk through it on their way in, weakening them some, softening them up for the enemy, or maybe it will work in their favor, perhaps the enemy thinks that since that section is trapped, then they won’t expect an attack from that direction?

This system is meant to make tracking the passage of time easier, 1 session typically = 1 day. Spell casters should prepare their spell lists, and it makes it easier to calculate expendable equipment, such as torches, lantern fuel, and food/water. Resources can play an important part in this game. 1 hour of real time, can equal 1 hour of game time.

This map is also equipment, and subject to the laws of physics, if the player who is drawing the map is blinded, he can’t draw his map, nor can he see it. If the party irritates a fire-breathing something or other, the map must make a saving throw or burn.  You can be as mean or as nice as you want. If the map is destroyed, then take it away.  It is best to spend money on some nice paper, and figure out a good method of drawing, as well as a case of some kind because everybody’s lives depends on keeping this map safe! Especially in the lowest pits of the earth where light isn’t welcome.


I don’t know about you, but I am a much better Dungeon Master than I was in the 90’s, and I think that if I apply all that I had learned over the years, and put it into this concept that I can really rock this out! What I refer to as “stories” actually has been reduced considerably, and my underground sections have gotten admittedly stale compared to my wilderness games.
How about you? Have you ever played this style of game before? Are you still playing it now, or did you abandon it as well? As a player, would you be interested in this style or not? Let me know in the comments below!


Brooser Bear said...

I like the outdoors and the mega dungeon swallowed my campaign. Dungeon crawl is the trench warfare of D&D. There is a reason that D&D became iconic and the dungeon is a huge part of it. The dungeon map, Map Key, and the Encounter table are a literary form for presenting the adventure. Functionally, the Dungeon Map is the flowchart for the Dungeon adventure. Rooms hold Encounters and are incidents in the overall adventure, connected by corridors. Of course, a corridor itself can hold events and incidents that make up the adventure, but it connects the rooms and forms the adventure structure. I don't like the idea of a Boss Monster. It is too linear and is too reminiscent of the video game. A Minotaur Labyrinth is more to my liking. Labyrinths have fascinated humanity for millennia and are a symbol of the inner workings of the mind. Using that as a base, I can make more terrifying and phantasmagoric dungeons. But there is more. Gary Gygax's supplement for Dungeon Design, in the back of his DMG is the program to create his World, the World of Greyhawk. He described it in terms of the treasures, and specifically magic items, more specifically, the Artefacts and the powers they bring to the game, but also his lists of traps, "Specials", and encounter tables. All this was done to be presented in the course of the Dungeon Crawl. Once you went outside the Dungeon, Gary's model did not work so well. You can have the Hex Crawl, but that would be make a "room" out of the wilderness hex. It might work as an extension of the Dungeon design model, but it doesn't work too good for the Wilderness design model. It is no accident that for all the wilderness supplements out there, there isn't one that does for wilderness design what Gygax Supplements did for Dungeon design. You see, wittingly or unwittingly, Gary had a paradigm for the Dungeon adventure and tapped into something deeper. Nobody else had the intellectual depth to understand that something similar, a paradigm and a structural form is needed to model the wilderness and the exploration of it.

The adventure design moved on since then, and even though it left the OSR and Wilderness design behind, it brought the dungeon model to fuller fruition. Namely, a room on the Dungeon Map need not be a room. It can be an encounter, a location, or an event. Encounter can be anything from the meeting at the OK Corral to a Midnight scene at a local restaurant. Locations can be important places in one's life, such as the School, the Church, The Mall, or geographic locations of interest in a huge town. You might make 20 for the players to find and explore scattered among the City of 500,000 and unmappable amount of shops, taverns and buildings. There are also rules for the design and implementation of the connecting lines. That kind of a map, the locations in the social life of characters and places of interest, are actually known as the Functional Maps, and they can represent anything from one's social life to the events in a non-linear story. Gygax stumbled upon the most basic and literal form of the context, where the Dungeon Map is a geographic map of the labyrinth and the functional map of the adventure.

RipperX said...

The above is all too true. I think that the greatest tool for this type of game is most assuredly the trusty 1e Dungeon Master's Guide. Everything you need is right in that book. Add a drop of creativity and the possibilities are endless!

Pedro Obliziner said...

great article. I confess I never played a real dungeon crawl in this style, and I even have undermountain here on my shelf! Is way of playing that's definitely in risk of extinction.

RipperX said...

We had played Undermountain a lot! I actually plan on doing a review on this product soon.

In many cases, it is easier to prep the game. It can get intense at first, but once you've created all of the tools that you need: The map, key, and encounters lists, then you're done! You can get many sessions out of it this for a long time, with no additional prepwork, and everything (with the exception of the key) is recyclable.

I'd hate for this style to become forgotten, it is just so pure and functional! Playing in this style, while initially feels like more work, becomes easier and more exciting as you adjust. If you can survive it, it is hard to describe the feelings of accomplishment that you get until you've experienced it. It is definitely challenging!

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