Ideas for Dungeon Design in RPGs

Crossing the Streams – D&D, Conan, & More

I’ve talked about getting back into the game and I have been having a blast. I have another piece in the works regarding actual play of my family Dungeons & Dragons 5E game. But first, I wanted to put this bit together. This one is owed to one of those videos I mentioned listening to in my earlier post one from Matthew Colville where he was finally able (after all these years) to get through my thick skull—who cares what system it’s from? If it’s cool—use it!

A Sword & Sorcery Supplement for a High Magic Campaign

Conan Ancient Ruins and Cursed Cities

It is no secret that I have thoroughly enjoyed what Modiphius has done with their Conan Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of RPG. I finally cracked the digital cover of the Conan Ancient Ruins & Cursed Cities PDF.  To be frank, much of this book is something I would rarely if ever use. It is a relatively small book, with the index coming in at page 113. The first 87 pages or so are dedicated to specific locales from the literature upon which this book is based. I’m a sorry bastard who has yet to read all those books. Shame on me. Meanwhile, there is one specific part of the book that I really got into and that is way at the end. That is the part on Building Ruins.

What is a Dungeon Anyway?

One of my good friends who I have known for more than two decades now and I met through gaming loves a good dungeon crawl. He will Monty Hall you through one any day or night of the week. However, he has always had a complaint—what sick, twisted bastard went around digging all these caverns out, leaving monsters strewn about, and building traps like this, and for what purpose?

Homebrew Dungeon Tiles

For this reason, he really enjoyed an old D&D adventure from Monte Cook (someone feel free to comment which it was, because I forget). In that adventure, the dungeon was a crashed spaceship. At least then, all the weirdness made sense.

The D&D 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide has a section on creating random dungeons—the layout, the traps, etc.—toward the back of the book. Near the beginning of the book, however, there a section that includes tables to try and give your dungeon a story. Who made it? Why? This is a great place to start.

Ancient Ruins & Cursed Cities provides some guidance on creating dungeon-like locations as well. Again, it is based on tables to determine the who, what, why, and where. The descriptions provided here are more evocative of great storytelling, in my opinion. I believe a big part of that is because the work for a Conan RPG is targeting a specific setting and feel. Dungeons & Dragons, on the other hand, is trying to allow players and DMs to address a variety settings and ideas.

Conan and DnD are two very different games that scratch different itches. As such, it should come as no surprise to there being different concepts and even mechanics. Currently, I am running a 5E game for my home group and we’re having a lot of fun. I am looking here at the Ancient Ruins & Cursed Cities book, though, and wondering what I can—or even should—bring over to our home game.

Make it Mean Something

Even a novice DM or GM can run a troupe of adventurers through a series of rooms, attacking foes and delving for treasure. And, truth be told, a merry band of murder hobos doesn’t need much to enjoy throwing dice. Heck, I just ran a game like this the other night when pressed for time and there was plenty of fun. As long as you’re having fun, you can NOT be playing the game wrong or playing the wrong game.

Even if you have fun just throwing dice and critting all over the bad guys, imagine how much more fun you and your group could have with a dungeon crawl that has more of a story. Knowing the history and background of the dungeon (or other adventuring area) can drive a lot within the area. A naturally occurring cave, for example, would have washed out area, likely rock slides, jagged cliffs, etc. A currently active stronghold is going to have guards, locks, choke points, and other active security measures. An abandoned wizard’s tower has forgotten horrors behind barred doors, crumbling walls, arcane wards, and more. That old wizard’s tower may be inhabited by experiments of that long dead wizard. An active stronghold has sentient humanoids, guard dogs, healers, casters—whatever you’d guard your keep with. That cave has become home to….what?

These sorts of questions all help a dungeon make sense. A tome with hidden magics is right at home on a shelf in a stronghold or wizard’s lab, but laying on a table in a cave? It could happen, but there needs to be a reason for it. It’s more likely to find, say, on the corpse of a wizard who was trying to hide out here before the current inhabitants of the cave got to them.

That does not make sense

Make it make sense and everyone involved will have a much more rewarding experience.

What About the Mechanics?

Modiphius’s Conan has a Doom Pool. It helps measure when things go wrong, as the ever-encroaching darkness goes from looming to smothering. It is a cool concept and fits that story perfectly. For epic fantasy and high adventure, it may not work too well. However, the Ancient Ruins and Cursed Cities book brings forward the idea in terms of the Ruin Pool. The dungeons and ruins characters are travelling have their own history, story, and character. Why shouldn’t they have their own malleable threats?

When things go wrong in a dungeon, they can quickly go from bad to worse—depending on how you want to run your game. This idea works well for me, if not in every D&D dungeon I run, at least some. I like the idea of things mounting against the players or when things start going to easy to be able to adjust on the fly. Usually, this is something I hand wave or house rule, but having a decided mechanic for it is something I am looking at giving a try. However, it is something I would do with a more epic dungeon crawl—one that is pivotal or momentous for the players and the characters.

Other Dungeon Making Help

I have a handful of books on my list to check out yet. None of us knows everything. If you think you do, you’ve obviously overlooked something. This is one of the few places where the old adage holds true: plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery. As a DM or GM, we look to create fun and have fun. We see what’s out there and think “I want that in my game.” Take it. Steal it. Use it in your game. The IP police aren’t going to come kick in the door of your Friday night game. In fact, I know a number of game designers and they love it when they see things they developed for one system make its way into other systems. You can come up with some really cool ideas by bringing seemingly different concepts together.

Sine Nomine is known for their awesome tables of randomness. Let’s not forget that’s part of where Rolemaster gained its fame. We love random tables in roleplaying games. There are a lot more books out there with a lot more ideas and random tiles on what kinds of dangers we can throw at our players–in and out of dungeons. I am interested to hear your suggestions. There are, after all, only so many hours I can dedicate to reading what others have done. Where am I going to get the most reward? Where’s the biggest bang for my buck? (Shameless self promotion is welcome and even encouraged in the comments).

Stay tuned for what I manage to cobble together for my home group and how I did it.


    1. This looks like a great idea. I enjoy a number of system neutral aides I’ve seen over the years as they are–as a necessity–deep with story. And, at $5, seems hardly able to be a bad buy. I’ll definitely be checking this one out.


  1. Interesting article. One of the early AD&D modules was Expedition to the Barrier Peaks which was exploration of a spaceship. This was one of the first adventures I played in when I first began playing Dungeons and Dragons. The module came out in like 80 or 81 and we played it almost immediately.

    But a dungeon could be exploration of anything. The inside of a massive robot (I think there is a module about such a thing), on another plane, under water, on a castle on a floating cloud in the sky or a billion other places. Finding creative places to adventure in can keep your players interested in the campaign for a very long time.


    1. I often think of the same things when I am running a game. I kick myself often that a room is a 20 ft by thirty ft room with nothing interesting in it where it could be a rectangular room with a crevasse splitting it from side to side. The crevasse lets out amounts of steam and noxious gas every so often to make the whole thing that much more interesting. I am getting better at this thankfully!


      1. Mark?! I thought we banned you!

        Kidding aside, I used to always get so swept up in the tactics and antics, I never paid attention to the details. You could’ve been adventuring anywhere, but if there wasn’t something mechanical, it didn’t matter. Luckily, I have changed and play time–for me and my players–has improved heaps because of it. What has been really fun is mixing the setting and mechanics together, often from the hip. I still have a long way to go and one of my challenges is now linking together various types of dungeons, like a necromancers secret study links to a lab in a cave which ties back to the cathedral, which you can only get to through the sewers, little callbacks and foreshadowing throughout.


    2. Joseph, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was exactly the one I was thinking of. I had not yet seen one where I could explore the inside of a giant robot, but it just gets my mind running with ideas. To your final point–yes, so much yes. Also, some players just want to watch the dungeon burn.


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