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You Don't Have to be a Brain Surgeon to Build a Realistic Dungeon

Written by Janna - Published on November 19, 2008

Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.

I’ve got a friend who likes to grumble about the implausible nature of dungeons, especially dungeons from the early days of D&D. “They don’t make sense,” he insists. “Why would a dragon live in the same place as a bunch of orcs and goblins? Why would ogres set up shop in a cave full of deadly fungi, slimes, and piercers? And why would anyone permit gelatinous cubes to roll around in their dungeon? They might absorb you while you sleep!”

Well, obviously the dragon enjoys having its own buffet; the ogres use the environmental hazards to soften up intruders; and gelatinous cubes make a handy, if squishy, janitorial staff. But that’s just me coming up with justifications for seemingly nonsensical dungeon arrangements.

To be honest, I see my friend’s point. There’s something a little too random about kicking in Door #1 and finding a colony of kobolds, then kicking in Door #2 and finding a pack of werewolves. Would those guys actually have cordial relations? Not to mention, Door #3 might be hiding a drow raiding party – far from home, and living in apparent harmony with all the other creatures inhabiting the place.

Making Dungeons Make Sense

Your dungeons don’t have to be made up of random monster pairings, unless your players are happy with that arrangement. To make your dungeons make sense, think about the types of monsters that might actually form an alliance. Then populate the dungeon with these monsters. Incorporate a variety of monsters of various levels. You could give your PCs a few easy targets, quite a lot of targets on par with the party, a few hard ones, and one uber-boss.

For example, you could go with the “master and minions” theme. Say there’s a dungeon filled with kobolds and their minions. Easy pickings for almost any PC. But those kobolds have laid traps and set up ambushes to wear down the PC party. They’ve also got some spell-casting dragon cultists among their number. Young dragons and dragon spawn make an appearance as the PCs near the end. Once the party has cleared out the smaller monsters, they could stumble upon a bona fide dragon.

To make an ecologically sound dungeon, come up with a theme and then fit monsters into that theme. You could have an elemental dungeon, an undead dungeon, or even a dungeon filled with constructs.

Monster Manual 4th EditionThe Monster Manual Can Help

The 4th Edition Monster Manual makes it easier than ever to come up with dungeons that make sense. Most of the creatures in the book have different classes among their number, representing a range of difficulties. For example, a yuan-ti sharp-eye is a level 13 creature, but a yuan-ti anathema is level 21. And there are lots of other yuan-ti classes that fall between those levels.

Also, the book suggests likely encounter groups for each monster. Those suggestions alone tell you which sorts of creatures might cooperate with each other.

Think Outside the Dungeon

Of course, your dungeon doesn’t have to actually be a dungeon. A dungeon can be any place where enemies lurk. A range of craggy hills might bring your party into conflict with a basilisk, a pair of wyverns, and an ettin marauder. Beef up those creatures’ numbers to populate your hills with an ecology that makes sense.

The Underdark is a prime example of the non-dungeon dungeon. You can always take your party down there to see a rich, if deadly, ecology in action.

Dungeons are great places to hack up enemies and find lots of treasure. I think an element of realism adds to the fun. Do you agree? Leave a comment to share your thoughts about the ecology of dungeons.

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Written by Janna

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Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.

 

 Comments

7 Responses to “You Don't Have to be a Brain Surgeon to Build a Realistic Dungeon”
  1. Tommi says:

    There is little reason to have the creatures be allied. Given sufficient space to move in they might well be locked in a slow war of attrition; this also makes things much more interesting for the PCs, who can get involved and play them against each other and so on. Dungeons are mindless hack and slash only if the players are so inclined.

    A literary reference: Conan story called Red Nails

  2. Steve-o says:

    We always used to play the random monster dungeon when we first started. Now I actually take the time to think up reasons as to why various creatures are there and make sure that they can all work together for some reason. (Even if it is a “lame” excuse) It makes more sense and is still fun, but occasionally I miss the old days when you just didn’t care and didn’t question the make-up of the dungeon design. I know there are plenty of old modules that didn’t make sense, but they were fun to play anyway.

    Perhaps I’ll break out the Rules Cyclopedia for a good old fashioned one shot of random goodness.

    Yeah, I know it doesn’t really go with the theme of the article. I do like having things make sense and logical, but sometimes you just need the goofiness as a break.

    Oh, look there’s a Succubus living right next door to a Saytr, how nice…Do you think they have met yet? And look what’s coming down the hall, a unicorn. And the chamber down the hall is full of what color Slaad? great…. What do you mean there’s a Gelatinous cube coming down the hall behind us? That huge cavern that has absolutely no exists to the outside world has an ancient red dragon sleeping in it with his full treasure hoard. I wonder what is on the next level. Don’t these monsters seem a little high for our level of expertise?

  3. Micah says:

    I constantly war with the reality vs game aspect of dungeons. I try hard to make dungeons that have reasonable ecologies, like the kobolds with minions example given above. Like you say, it’s not too hard to make something reasonable.

    However, one other aspect that’s often overlooked is the defensive response of the dungeon inhabitants. Once someone starts attacking, it’s reasonable that the dungeon denizens will mount a full response immediately. So, instead of the PCs clearing it room by room, they should expect a coordinated response as soon as they’re detected.

    This dramatically changes the nature of a dungeon crawl. It makes stealth much more important, and once you’re discovered, you can expect a massive battle. Should you survive, expect a reasonably easy stroll, perhaps with a straggler or two you find cowering somewhere.

    What’s the cure for that?

  4. Derek says:

    For me, the “element of realism” (in this case, something like a natural ecology for dungeons) doesn’t just “add to the fun.” Rather it is an absolute necessity among the ingredients it takes to make an enjoyable gaming experience. When I was 12, no…but that was long ago.

  5. Toord says:

    Absolutely agree with your friend’s point of view. Many of the dungeons I run, I simply cannot get my head off the thought of entering a dungeon Oozes jump at you, then some kobold ambush, then a trog overlord, then an ogre or a troll then the end boss is a necromancer with his own army of undead. Wait … what? To me the whole, the big picture needs to make sense in order for me to enjoy a night of questing. If all of a sudden I’m fighting a scorpion, then a troll then a bearded devil (barbazu) end boss … I get really annoyed and argumentative … ‘cuz it’s just doesn’t make ANY sense. Some people pay little attention at the monsters they fight other than to know which weapons or spells to use… for some of us … the enemies we fight in a dungeon have to fit the role and relationships withing the lore.

    P.S.: How’s Expy such a cool dude when reds are usually pretty malevolent kinda dragons?

  6. I have two litmus test questions that I apply to dungeons to see if they are realistic:

    1) What do the monsters eat when there are no adventures to snack on?

    2) Where are the toilets?

  7. Janna says:

    @ Micah: The effect you’re describing sounds like the all-out chaotic brawls you get in Diablo and similar games. While it might make perfect sense for the dungeon’s inhabitants to rush the party in one big group, it’s probably not going to be a fun situation for the party or for the DM running the madness. I’d say the cure is suspending a bit of realism in order to make the game more fun and playable. You could always say the other groups of monsters were hanging back to guard prisoners, prepare a ritual, set an ambush, or what have you. :)

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