The Problem with Dungeons

I’m about to write something in stark disagreement with a lot of the gaming community that I follow: I don’t like dungeons. I actually don’t like dragons either. I’ve picked an interesting system for my hobby.

I’ve been running Rise of Tiamat at my local comic & games store. The Tomb of Diderius is a really cool dungeon… if you’re reading it. If you’re playing in it it’s really easy to miss a lot of what makes it cool. Cool details are wasted if the players never trigger the particular odd thing that is supposed to prompt them. I didn’t write Rise of Tiamat so it’s just a shame that neat little things didn’t come up during my players’ time in the tomb, but if I had written it that would have been valuable writing time wasted.

What I’ve come to do at home is use a system of what I call rumours. I write up people, places, events, things, and actual rumours, and randomly select some to give to the players and let them decide where to go from there. I then essentially facilitate them creating their own story by answering their questions. This doesn’t work if I want multiple tables to play the same game, they’ll end up playing very different games. That leaves me with a written adventure. I’m all about saving time, so how do I mitigate the wasted time factor of writing whole adventures? I can think of plenty of alternatives. The first thing that comes to mind is just don’t do it. I can use a detailed setting, or a pre-written adventure. I could also use a dungeon generator and theme the results appropriately, but that doesn’t sound terribly exciting to me. I can also just let it go wildly different in the more likely situation of games being in different places and times, but the time factor is what drives me to want this to be close to the same for all tables.

Doing a straightforward quest with a big dungeon seems like the easiest answer to how to homebrew something in this situation, but that has its problems too. Dungeons are fairly predictable with respect to pacing, it’s roleplaying encounters that vary in time a lot. Dungeons are also easier to write (in some ways) so maybe the risk of wasted time isn’t as high. But they’re very difficult to control, and to anticipate. Secret doors are great, but what if they don’t find them? You can write an awesome trap that never gets triggered. You can put tons of treasure in a room that is never reached. You can put hints as to the origins of the dungeon all over the place that the players never look at. So while you’re disappointed that all this work you put in to your dungeon is being missed, the players are feeling bored because this dungeon isn’t very exciting. You can cut the prep time by randomizing a lot of the dungeon creation, but I feel like that tends to pull some of the life out of it.

In any case, I bring this up for a very specific reason. I’m going to be running a game for my baby shower (my baby shower? My unborn child’s baby shower? Who is this thing for anyway?) and I anticipate more players than I’ll want to wrangle myself, so I need to have something written down to give to one or more other DMs.

I don’t feel like I’m giving away too much to say I’m using Zak Smith’s Red & Pleasant Land. Using Zak’s fine work means I don’t need to come up with each individual encounter, so I can map out the path I hope the players will take and have the other DM(s) study those parts of the book. I suppose I’ll also have to instruct that hints for the correct path be dropped in to prevent one table from ending up horribly lost.

I happened to want from the start something that works well for what I’m doing, I don’t expect it to be a problem, so this is mostly just a mental exercise right now.

The questions are: Those of you who actually write the adventures you run – how do you expedite the process? How do you keep your dungeon engaging and prevent players from missing things?


One thought on “The Problem with Dungeons

  1. I haven’t used a pre-written adventure I think since 2010. And even then, I think it hasn’t been since high school (2005) since I did much in any sort of “proper” dungeon. When writing my adventures, the best advice I can offer is to come up with a concept (such as goblin raids on human villages to create half-goblins which are later kidnapped and raised by the goblins to be warband leaders), and then detail the immediate environment (Like the small human village, a few important personalities there, the isolated fjord where they live, the forest between the goblin’s outpost and the village). After that, figure out the motivations and plans for both sides, a few basic contingencies, and the write up a compelling opening scene. Though for your event, I would recommend a different concept from the example above…

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the different tables following the same path (because there’s no good way to make them), and the best way to deal with an open environment is to have a rough idea of the schedules of the inhabitants, and their goals within that environment to understand how they might act when the PCs start mucking about in their business. I’d also recommend the Angry GM ( ) for further inspiration if my brief insights aren’t completely sufficient to inform every decision you make from here until the sun explodes.

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