On Building Dungeons

For my EHS job I will be going into a large dilapidated military base to radio-survey. The safety plan accounts for falling debris, holes in the floor, unstable floors, trespassers, radioactivity and substantial areas of darkness. I have literally been hired for a dungeon crawl. All my years of gaming . . . it has all been training for this.

Me, A Very excited dungeon master sharing with my players on Discord

I work in Environment Health & Safety and one of the interesting aspects of the job is that I get to visit “Dungeons.” In the fantasy setting any abandoned structure can become a dungeon – monsters move in, old ghosts refuse to move out. And as I explored the military base for the radio-survey I learned some things about how “dungeons” work that I plan to implement as I design them for the RPG Table.

1. Structures Degrade Fast

The military base in question was in use not that long ago, and it already shows much wear and tear. Often we think that a dungeon needs to be from “time immemorial” or from when “the first men walked the Earth.” Even if people who used the structure in its hay-day are still alive, damage adds up fast. Vandals, roof leaks, animals can degrade a structure quickly. A structure with recent history gives the players the opportunity to trace the story of the dungeon to currently-living people. The presence of living stakeholders can make the story more pressing as the structure is now tied to people the PC’s know, and is not simply a nameless backdrop.

2. History Comes in Layers

When designing an old dungeon, think of Alcatraz – it had a period as a Naval base, as a prison, as a site of a Native American protest, and as a tourist site. Likewise the military base I was able to explore had layers of history – different missions, partial reclamation, vandals etc. Don’t design “The Layer of the Necromancer.” Perhaps the castle was held by several noble kings, was briefly conquered by enemy invaders, was reclaimed but then fell due to a betrayal. What aspects of this history are relevant to the current necromancer occupant? What aspects are unknown to him? And how has each layer of history impacted the structure, and how will that impact the PCs as they explore it?

3. The first advneturers?

If a structure is really old, you are not the first adventurer to explore it. As we made our markings for our radio survey we had to avoid markings form prior EH&S workers. When your PC’s try to scale the cliff, do they find climbing stakes from prior adventurers? What was their purpose? Did they succeed? Or not? And does this provide benefit . . . or further challenge for the current group of adventurers?

4. Difficult Roofing

In RPGs we have lots of rules for “difficult terrain.” As a EH&S worker you learn to worry about difficult roofing just as much. When we first visited the structure we brought caution paint and tape to mark pipes, wood planks and other hazards that are (in)conveniently right at head height. I realize that so many of my dungeons are honestly quite luxurious. The roof is always a comfortable height, most floors are stable, you can leave and expect it to look the same way when you get back. When dealing with an abandoned structure none of these will be true. Hazards will be both above and below. And if you leave, vandals may create more when you are not looking. When making dungeons be careful to not make them too cozy!

5. The area around the Dungeon

Dungeons do not build themselves. If you have a huge maze of caverns . . . where did these workers come from? Do roads built for construction of the dungeon still surround the site? Are some of the buildings of the surrounding village part of the original construction project that built what is now a dungeon? Parts of the military base are now owned by other parties and are fully functional businesses. Other parts are still abandoned. Maybe the inn the adventurers stay in before they go questing into the dungeon contains clues as to the dungeon’s original purpose. Or perhaps the journey to the dungeon requires the party to take the roads that were used for its construction or to visit a neighboring castle that is very much still in use.

6. Noise carries

As big as the military base is, if a bunch of adventurers came in swords a blazing, awareness of their presence would travel rather fast. Keep this in mind. Even if a fight happens a floor below, it is probable the whole dungeon knows. The monsters are smart. They plan.

7. Dungeons Should Be practical

When designing a dungeon think about what it was intended for. A military base needs places for the soldiers to sleep, places for vehicles to be stored, places or meetings to be held and places for technical work to take place. A church or temple likely has a “Holy of Holies” where only clergy can go, a place for the congregation, side chapels, a baptismal font, a place for the choir, a mausoleum, confessionals and a place for the cleaning of ceremonial tools. A prison likely needs different blocks for different prisoner risk-levels, potentially an execution chamber, solitary confinement or other “punishment within the punishment”, a mess hall, a medical wing, guard towers and the like. Even if the dungeon is a cave that goblins have just moved into, you can ask if the Goblin chief has kept the “highest” or driest part of the cave for his or her self, if they picked a part of the cave system that is easier to defend, what defenses they built, how they are storing their equipment, etc. Cooking probably takes place closer to the front of the cave (so smoke can escape). People who are sleeping are likely kept far in so they are not easily attacked. A guard is probably at the mouth of the cave and there is probably a place that is used for planning away from the underlings.

If the dungeon has been repurposed several times it can be interesting to see how subsequent generations adapted to make their new purpose fit an old floor plan.

Put effort into your dungeons. Just don’t get angry when the players burn them down just the same.

Science-fiction alien with electric whip in burning environment
General Vikiper, while a thorn in the side of the reporters of the Martian Muckraker is a skilled dungeon delver.

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