DM: "You're standing outside a big stone door."
Players: "Okay, who's carrying the torch?"
How many great D&D experiences have kicked off with an exchange like that one?
Instead of a door, maybe it was a dark cave mouth, an old staircase leading beneath the ruined temple, or even a mundane sewer grate. A dungeon entrance is a dungeon entrance is a dungeon entrance; by any other name it would still smell as sweet (or at least beckon PCs as effectively).
This month, our siblings chat about memorable dungeon crawls from years past, and what made them work.
Andy: For as long as I've been playing D&D , I've been running you and the guys through dungeons. That first session when you, Kurt, and I played for 9 hours straight was pure Keep on the Borderlands (specifically, the Caves of Chaos, a prototypical old-school dungeon where orcs, goblins, undead, and other monsters lived nearly side-by-side).
Flash forward 26 years and we find you liberating Blackrazor from White Plume Mountain. Some things just don't ever change, do they?
Greg: Well, all my prep for facing the ogre mage at the end went out the window when he turned out to be a halfling . . . dominated by a mind flayer. But other than that, there's no doubt the dungeon holds a powerful place in the hearts of players and DMs.
A few very memorable ones come to mind . . . our first real foray in 2nd Edition led us to The Temple of Elemental Evil. This was the classic for me: You go in, you beat up some monsters, you take their loot, you head back to town to rest (or if you're feeling brave, you hide in some out-of-the-way room, rigging a fort out of overturned tables and leftover spears). Repeat as often as you want. I remember coming across the secret tomb deep on the third level, recovering Scather (one of the swords of answering), handing it to Breygon the cavalier and watching him become the absolute stalwart of the party. He stood there and took his punishment while the rest of us scurried around, and then at the end of the round WHAMMO! He hit back, and hit back hard.
Also high on the charts was Nightfang Spire. The entire adventure path of modules for 3rd Edition had a few choice dungeons, but this one really stood out as the ball-breaker. A teleporting wight monk? Shadows that can slip through the walls, floor, and ceiling? And always being under the eye of Gulthias, thanks to those damn scrying eyes? I never, ever felt safe in that adventure. So how does a dungeon become more than a series of 10-foot corridors, pit traps, and secret doors?
Andy: Well, if we had an easy answer to that question, there'd be a whole lot more great adventures out there.
But even lacking a magic formula, there are definitely some tricks that can help make a dungeon memorably challenging and entertaining for everyone at the table.
The last part of that sentence bears repeating -- a dungeon isn't great just because the DM had fun snuffing the PCs. It doesn't take DM or adventure-design skill to kill off PCs; in fact, the reverse is true. Really crappy DMs and adventure writers have been killing off PCs (and campaigns) for decades. What takes skill is to write a dungeon that pushes players and characters to their limits without just arbitrarily dropping them into a pit of lava or throwing a dozen balors at them.
For example, I know a lot of folks out there claim to have fond memories of the Tomb of Horrors. I think they're either crazy or lying to themselves. I ran that adventure a few times back in the day, but as I recall the players didn't seem to find it nearly as entertaining as I did.
Greg: I hated it. I distinctly remember asking you when we were done exactly how many monsters were in the dungeon. The answer? Four. A random four-armed gargoyle, a mummy that pretended to be a lich, a siren, and then A DEMI-LICH THAT CAN'T BE HURT except for a few very corner cases involving uber-powerful weapons and specific character classes.
What put Gygax in such a horrible, PC-hatin' mood to write that module?
Players still need to feel threatened. Ratheof, my halfling thief, got his hand chopped off in the Temple of Elemental Evil on an ill-advised solo foray (he was looking for Christmas presents for the other PCs . . . I think he ended up finding a frostbrand). We lost several characters in Nightfang Spire -- and not just to falling out of the side of the tower on a slide trap, and then having the sarcophagus lid we used to prop open the trap door slip through and plummet the hundreds of feet down on top of you Wile E. Coyote-style. (Sorry Jarvis . . . best death ever, narrowly edging Adarrial's failed feign-death bluff of being reanimated as a zombie when the necromancer was intending to bring me back as a shadow.)
These dungeons didn't flat-out say, "Welcome to my abode, now please prepare your endless supply of 5,000 gp diamonds and raise dead spells." They had style.
Andy: And when I think of style, I'm really thinking about two key elements that all of my favorite dungeons combine admirably: story and game play.
By story, I don't mean five pages of backstory explaining who built the dungeon ten thousand years ago, what used to live here but doesn't any more, or the unique runescript invented by the author that appears in various places but doesn't actually provide clues for the players.
I'm really talking about the dungeon's basic story hook. Effectively, this is the dungeon's "ur-story"; it's what the characters get to learn pretty quickly as they adventure, and what the players remember about it years later.
The story hook should be short and to the point. If you can't put it into one or two sentences, chances are it's too complex for the players to really appreciate. Here are a couple of classic D&D dungeons' story hooks as examples, plus a newer one that I think qualifies for "instant classic" status.
- A multilevel subterranean complex of rooms with four rival temples whose areas mirror their elemental themes, all of which answer to a trapped demon that the characters might accidentally set loose.
- A big wooden fortress full of partying hill giants, with more monsters, escaped slaves, and a weird shrine in the basement.
- An enormous tower filled with charnel tombs, deadly traps, and undead servitors, ruled by a powerful vampire wizard who can spy on you anywhere in his lair.
Are these stories complicated and multilayered? No, and that's a good thing. It's exceedingly hard to get across complicated stories in your average dungeon. Subtle clues go unrecognized or are simply ignored, and unless the payoff to "solving" the dungeon's backstory provides a useful tool to the PCs, it's a luxury at best (and a distraction at worst).
Greg: In my first campaign, I knew I wanted to have a dungeon the players remembered. Reviewing my notes from when I started planning the Island campaign, I saw "haunted sanitarium" and knew that was a solid hook. I spent several false starts crafting the actual adventure by getting tangled up in the history of the asylum, what clan ran it, and tiny details of how the facility fell into disarray.
When I took a step back and made a list of cool undead and other insanity-themed abominations that might be in the dungeon, the adventure practically wrote itself. The hook was simply that evil forces had taken over this seemingly abandoned, remote facility, but there had been patients left behind . . . and not for the better. The electro-shock room now housed a living shocking grasp. The water-treatment room was home to a drowned. A brain in a jar was hiding in the vivisection/autopsy lab.
The granular story of the "module" wasn't nearly as important as how it fit into the story of the campaign. The characters spent just enough time figuring out that this place was full of bad juju and there wasn't a way out (they had been teleported there via a fake crematorium furnace), so they had to open every door and check every room -- just like any good dungeon demands.
Andy: Looking back, I'd say that was definitely the strongest "story hook" of any portion of the Island campaign. While the campaign wasn't really dungeon-focused, there were at least three that I can remember, and that one stands out the most clearly. The monsters had an obvious "reason to be there" (while believability is often overemphasized, it's nice to have at least a nod toward it that players can accept), and we quickly understood the kinds of horrific stuff we'd be facing.
A good story hook is only half the battle, though. A dungeon benefits greatly from interesting story elements, but it only sings when that's coupled with entertaining game play.
But for that, you'll have to wait until next month . . .
About the Author
By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?
As a D&D player, Greg Collins has been taking whatever older brother Andy can dish out for more than 20 years. Recently he took a seat behind the screen to exact his revenge upon his brother for killing his first character by washing him down a flight of stairs. In his time spent away from D&D , Greg is the events producer for magicthegathering.com.