hen Dungeons & Dragons started, it used "referee" (a term originating with the war games that were the ancestors of roleplaying games) to refer to what we now call the Dungeon Master. Today, many roleplaying games use words such as "narrator," "director," or "storyteller" to indicate how the rules of narrative shape the flow of the game as opposed to the rules of a simulated world.
So, should you be a heartless referee enforcing the rules of a cruel world? Or are you a flexible storyteller, softening the game's threat to let the heroes' exploits reach a dramatically satisfying ending?
Either. Or both. Plenty of old-school dungeons reinforced the cold, hard facts of an adventurer's life. But the game has always put fun at the table above adherence to the rules. Neither kind of play is right or wrong, as long as everybody's on the same page.
Your group might gravitate toward either extreme, or fall somewhere in the middle. Have a discussion regarding what style of play everyone favors. It's okay to run a no-holds-barred meat grinder if that's what the players expect. The players won't have much fun, though, if you give them no warning before your dungeon chews up characters into which they have poured significant time and effort. As always, you should adjust your DMing style to conform to your players' expectations.
Nasty in Your Narrative: The most story-focused games of deep roleplaying, full of sessions when "we never rolled the dice once," can still have a touch of ruthlessness. Think of when a character you loved in a movie, a book, or a TV series died abruptly. Done right, such a moment can be riveting and meaningful.
Done wrong, it is an exercise in hair-pulling frustration. You should always feel free to let the chips fall where they may—death can be random and sudden—but avoid arbitrary affronts to the reality of the game. Falling in lava is unfortunate, but a goblin's arrow mysteriously dealing four times its normal damage is just unfair.
Compassion on the Crawl: In like fashion, a hard-core dungeon crawl can be reshaped by an unexpected injection of old-fashioned drama. When a party accustomed to fighting ogres and spotting killer traps comes upon a lost child in a dungeon, the players might expect ambush or deceit. But if the child really is a victim of circumstance, how will the adventurers handle it? Can a hardened, pragmatic crew feel sympathy for an innocent and decide to escort that individual to safety, even if they know that doing so might put them in danger?
Advice and Tools
Chapter 3 of the Dungeon Survival Handbook: Into the Unknown examines a number of ways to craft an interesting dungeon—both in the construction and in the playing.
Involving the Characters: Delving through a dungeon's dank tunnels needs to be meaningful and interesting. If a character has a stake in what's happening, his or her player will be more immersed in what's going on. This section shows how to connect the characters' concerns to what's happening underground, in the form of adventure seeds for each of the themes in Chapter 1. It continues with some broad-based advice on how to get the characters interacting with the environment through exploration and puzzle solving.
Creating an Underdark Adventure: The scope and variety of the Underdark distinguish this underground realm from other types of dungeons. The advice in this section is about capturing the feel of traveling in the Underdark, and fitting your plots and battles to this environment. You can use the "An Underdark Trek" skill challenge to play out the trials the heroes must face as they traverse its caverns.
Dungeon Makers: Dwarves and minotaurs don't build their underground lairs the same way. You can add creature flavor to your dungeons based on who or what made them. This section explores the features typically found in the dungeons of various races and groups, with descriptions of specific features you can build on when you design your own work.
Special Rewards: This section describes scrolls of power, which enable characters to wield the magic of the gods with memorable spells such as power word kill and wish. It also includes a few special companions the adventurers might encounter in the dungeon.
Every organization or race that braves the Underdark creates dungeons in a specific style. An adventurer who knows how to read the works of different dungeon makers can quickly identify what kinds of traps—and treasure—might lie ahead.
Elegant and refined, drow-built dungeons are an extension of that race's legendary decadence. More than just homes and fortresses, drow dungeons are crafted to indulge a fetish for pain and an appreciation of dark beauty. Just as elves draw the details of their civilization from the natural world, drow shape their cities and buildings to mimic the natural features of the Underdark.
Drow are masters of subterranean construction. Magic, an enslaved workforce, and boundless creativity combine to create structures that enthrall and terrify outsiders.
The residences of the noble houses of the drow shine like cruel beacons out of the shadows of their cities. Functional as well as beautiful, these great estates exemplify the dark elves' love of magic and depravity, and their self-declared superiority. The spires of these edifices are meant to inspire envy and fear in all who see them.
Fortress Estates: The drow ruling houses possess tremendous wealth, and their leaders are not shy about showing it. Their estates are fortresses featuring outer walls, towers, and well-defended chambers. Drow nobles ostentatiously one-up each other with new construction that shows off their family's affluence. They set towers apart from other buildings, ensuring that no one can approach those structures' entrances without being spotted by guards. The interior of a drow noble's home is lush with opulent excess, much of it plundered from other houses.
Chambers of Indulgence: In the high towers of a drow estate stand the halls where matrons and noble scions indulge in decadent excess. Filled with sumptuous couches, diaphanous fabrics, freely flowing wine, and depraved entertainment, these rooms overflow with comforts and diversions, giving the entitled drow nobility a place to carouse their days away.
Slave Pens: All drow houses boast impressive slave pens, kept out of sight in the lower chambers. Some families turn these spaces into vast mercantile enterprises, making their fortunes by selling slaves. Others create elaborate training yards to prepare thralls for combat in a city's gladiatorial arena. No matter what their decorative appearance, slave pens are dismal places of chains, filth, and death.
Surrounding the metropolitan drow settlements are a variety of guard posts and garrisons that protect each city's borders. Architecturally, these fortresses display the same artistic grace found in the cities, making them resemble noble villas more than military strongholds. Those who doubt the strength of these outposts because of their appearance learn the lesson of their lives when the drow rise to defend them.
Impregnable Defenses: Drow outposts are built atop chasms, cliffs, and even huge stalagmites, making them difficult to attack. Most feature only a single entrance, fiendishly defended by magical wards, cramped labyrinths, or cultivated slimes. Drow take pleasure in tormenting invaders before they are slain, and so they sometimes create false gates and passages that lead far into their strongholds. The leaders of an attacking force think they have the element of surprise, but in reality they are being drawn into a trap.
Hall of Blades: All frontier outposts have an area where male drow practice the arts of combat and killing. These large chambers or courtyards are decorated with images of conquest that inspire drow warriors to hate any creatures not of their kind. Cruel weapons hang from racks along every wall, with dueling circles rising in tiers above the ground.
Secret Paths: Secret tunnels spin out from a drow outpost like the lines of a spider's web. Cleverly concealed, they are sometimes hidden even from the drow guarding a fortress. Such pathways provide clandestine access for spies or agents on important missions for the great houses or the priestesses of Lolth. Corrupt captains sometimes sell passage through these tunnels, though they offer no aid against any creatures or wards that might be guarding them.
Within the Web of Lolth
Rising in an unsettling swarm of barbed towers, the great temples of Lolth dominate the skyline of every drow city. Imperious and threatening, these structures are a constant reminder of the authority of Lolth's priestesses. An eldritch fire glows behind the spiderwebs that drape a temple of Lolth like a veil, as elaborate statues and carvings leer from the eaves.
Webbed Vault: The central area of a temple is a vast chamber large enough to hold hundreds of worshipers. A glass dome overhead sheds a cold and pale light. The high priestess evangelizes from a mighty dais at the head of the chamber, while spiders lurk in the dark tangle of webs that choke its upper reaches.
Torture Theatre: Drow take pleasure in the suffering of others, and their dungeons are public displays within Lolth's temple. Here prisoners are creatively restrained and ritually tormented for the amusement of the populace, who howl with delight as the priestesses perform their ceremonies.
Sacrificial Chamber: Deep within the mystic inner chambers of the temple stands the sacrificial altar where important victims are offered up to the Spider Queen. The sacrificial chamber is bedecked in grotesque artwork of gruesome detail and awful magnificence that reveals the dark elves' love of cruelty.
Handmaidens' Font: Tucked away in the topmost spire of a temple is a place that only the highest priestesses can enter. In this simple chamber stands a basin whose bottom reveals a portal to the Demonweb Pits. Priestesses use the font to commune with the yochlols, the handmaidens of Lolth.
The stench of rotting fish. The reverent chanting to mad gods. The screams of sacrificial victims. These are the signs that a kuo-toa dungeon lies ahead. The underground lairs of kuo-toas are horrid places filled with equally horrid creatures, but the rewards they offer are great. Kuo-toas hoard their wealth near their dark shrines as offerings to the insane beings they worship.
Kuo-toas make their lairs in natural caverns that have been eroded by water seeping through the Underdark. Walking into their dank, twisting caves is like entering another world where the ocean has consumed the land and fish rule over all. Rippling black pools reflect light from phosphorescent fungi along the walls, creating the feeling of being trapped underwater.
The amphibious kuo-toas are most comfortable in water, so they build colonies around the deep, murky pools that dot the Underdark. They treat their pools as holy places, connected to the deepest underground seas where dwell the gods of the deep.
Kuo-toas believe that aboleths have a connection to their deep gods, and some kuo-toa colonies lie directly atop aboleth lairs. Any passage leading downward into darkness from a kuo-toa lair is a route that all explorers should think twice about following.
Breeding Pool: Kuo-toas lay their eggs in shallow pools of clear water, a stark contrast to the murky sumps found elsewhere in their lairs. Not far away, other pools hold kuo-toa fingerlings, not yet a year old and unable to breathe air. Vicious guards protect these pools and look after the young. The leaders of the kuo-toas keep separate royal spawning pools near their quarters.
Offering Pool: The wealth that kuo-toas pillage from other creatures is cast into the depths of this diamond-shaped black pool as an offering to the deep gods. The pool's chamber is usually deserted, though ranking kuo-toas sometimes come here to retrieve valuable treasures for their personal quarters.
A Wealth of Slaves
Above their brackish pools, the kuo-toas build the cells and pens in which dwell slaves drawn from other races. Kuo-toa lairs bustle with activity, but slaves do all the real work. Overseers keep watch as slaves catch fish, clean, dig new tunnels, and craft the kuo-toas' signature hunting weapons. Other kuo-toas use their time to worship at their weird altars, or undertake excursions into the Underdark seeking enemies or more slaves.
Slave Pens: At the rare times when slaves are allowed to sleep or eat, they are stuffed into closely guarded, cramped pens built of thick wooden bars. Each pen offers little more than a shallow pool of filthy water to drink, a rocky floor to sleep on, and a reeking pit for waste. Slaves are fed rats, fungus, and insects. The kuo-toas save their precious fish for themselves.
Workshop: Kuo-toas set their slaves to work crafting specialized weapons for hunting, along with trinkets to offer to their gods. Their workshops are flat-floored chambers strewn with simple tools.
Purging Chamber: Kuo-toas have a racial tendency to descend into madness. In a futile attempt to prevent the insanity from infecting others, an individual affected by this condition is either exiled or sent to the lair's purging chamber. Sane kuo-toas will not come near a mad one, so they order their slaves to force those so afflicted through the single entrance to this small room. Slaves attack the mad kuo-toa with spears until they slay it, then leave its body to rot.
Worship and Rule
The deep gods influence every aspect of kuo-toa society. When kuo-toas create their dungeons, they lay them out based on ancient patterns that they believe have been passed down by their gods. They do not craft many adornments, and the statues and wall art they do create are displayed near their deepest pools and holiest sites.
Meditation Cell: Kuo-toa monitors use these small, secluded areas to go through the mental exercises that stave off their racial madness. These areas are left dark and unadorned so that meditating monitors can turn their focus inward.
Sacrificial Shrine: In a smaller kuo-toa community, the shrine is no more than a simple stone slab caked with dried blood. In the largest and oldest settlements, kuo-toas have created tall, tiered ziggurats on which their victims are ritually murdered.
Whip Chambers: The whips are the leaders and religious scholars of the kuo-toa race. They maintain austere chambers in which they keep their spellbooks and religious artifacts.
All adventurers know that wizards are the masterminds behind some of the world's most unforgiving dungeons. Whether designed to house a trove of arcane lore or to keep the mundane world and its occupants at a distance, a wizard's dungeon is a place of bizarre wonders.
Such a dungeon is created in a place of power, whether in a mountainside holding an ancient arcane relic or on the perimeter of the abandoned temple of a long-dead god. No matter what its location or how dire the rumors of its magical defenses, a wizard's dungeon always attracts ambitious adventurers seeking to claim its treasures.
An Artist's Masterpiece
Wizards are not content to carve their dungeons from mundane caverns. They go out of their way to create or transform the dungeon environment with magic. A wizard considers himself or herself an artist, so that a dungeon becomes a medium for the individual's expression of arcane prowess.
Challenges Galore: Nearly every room and corridor in a wizard's dungeon holds potential danger to vex intruders or to test the worthiness of would-be allies. Flaming jets could suddenly shoot from the walls, or furniture might animate when someone touches it. The true nature of a wizard's dungeon is never what it appears.
Mystic Design: The floor plans of some wizards' dungeons are designed to reflect or harness arcane energy. These chambers and passages create mystic symbols when properly mapped, offering clues to uncovering a wizard's secrets.
Magical Locomotion: Many wizards create dungeons that require fantastic means of movement to traverse, from vertical shafts with no handholds to floating platforms that shuttle travelers over hazardous terrain.
Arcane Secrets Abound
Wizards create dungeons as a focus for magical research. For some, a dungeon is a testing ground for experimenting with new spells and magic items. Other wizards create dungeons to house the disastrous results of such experiments.
Laboratories: Wizards can't resist the opportunity to study their magic and find new ways to use it. Their dungeons frequently feature well-stocked laboratories where experiments are conducted. Vast piles of scrolls and racks of alchemical compounds abound in these workshops.
Summoning Chamber: This foreboding room is present in many an archmage's dungeon and is always bad news for adventurers. Within, the wizard communes with otherworldly entities that are able to cross into the world through magic circles or other kinds of dimensional portals. These creatures are often bound to a wizard's command and thus eager to attack intruders.
Treasure Vault: The wealth of wizards is the stuff of legend. Every wizardly dungeon has a treasure vault, hidden in a warded cache or sealed behind mighty doors. Protected by passwords, riddles, or cunning magical seals, a wizard's vault can make those who survive entering it rich beyond their wildest dreams.
Sanctum: This carefully placed and secure chamber is where a wizard rests, studies, and ponders the mysteries of the cosmos. Some sanctums rest atop the rest of a wizard's dungeon in a secret apex level, while others are hidden in the dungeon's uttermost depths.
Twenty Weird Things in a Wizard's Dungeon
1. Signs or symbols that warn intruders to beware.
2. A ceiling that appears as a starry night sky.
3. A fountain that flows backward.
4. Animated shadows that move across floors or walls.
5. The stuffed body of a never-before-seen creature.
6. Piles of books being sorted by faeries or imps.
7. A well that draws water from the deep ocean.
8. Rats skittering along the ceiling.
9. Candles or torches burning with green flame.
10. Portraits with moving features or backgrounds.
11. Self-building bridges or passages.
12. A globe showing the geography of another world.
13. A mirror that shows the viewer's aged reflection.
14. Jars filled with obscure creatures, living or dead.
15. Doors that change location when not observed.
16. Glowing crystals singing the history of the listener.
17. The head or other body part of a historical figure.
18. Flagstones that illuminate when walked on.
19. A tunnel that seems to extend forever.
20. A chamber where time moves slowly or quickly.
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll).