From the Schedule
Designing Dungeons with Monte Cook
Delve into the dungeon! Dungeons offer unique adventuring opportunities, and can be as dynamic, complex, and believable as any other environment. Come discuss dungeon design with Monte Cook, co-designer of 3rd edition D&D, co-founder of Malhavoc Press and designer of 20+ years of other game products, including the brand new Dungeonaday.com.
Monte Cook has the author's credit for the 3rd Ed. Dungeon Master's Guide and is widely published. His presentation was a highlight of my Gen Con experience. He gave tips on the theory of dungeon design, but there wasn't much in the way of practical design technique. The general discussion, though, was certainly the price of admission.
Tip One: A dungeon, in it's broadest stroke, is a setting that limits and directs movement. It could be a dungeon proper, or a forest with trails and impenetrable hedges, or a building like a castle. A plain or a stretch of open ocean would not be a dungeon. A dungeon has "walls" and features that can be interacted with.
Tip Two: Cook thinks dungeons have lost some cache in modern games, which is a shame. The purpose of a dungeon is to provide focus for encounters, and to manage player choices. A dungeon provides context to the challenges of the adventure.
Tip Three: It is not important to try to be realistic. It is not necessary to think too much about why this dungeon exists or whether or not someone would go to the trouble or expense to construct it, or whether there really exists the natural forces to form the dungeon. It is enough to say that it exists. Cook compares and contrasts realism with believability. The distinction is that believability is the burden of designing a dungeon so that players don't ask, "How can that possibly work?" As an example, a boulder would not roll up hill. That's not believable. Never mind that it might not be realistic for there to be a bolder trap because nobody would go to that trouble. Another example: the players go down a hall in a dungeon laden with deadly traps and at the end of it these mid-level PC's are good and beat up. Then at the end of the hall is a room with no other exits full of kobolds. It's not so important to justify why there are kobolds or a hall full of traps, but your players will not believe that a room full of healthy kobolds routinely traverse a hall of deadly traps in the course of their existence in the dungeon or that they don't traverse it and stay permanently in that room.
Tip Four: Meaningful decisions. Dungeon design is about offering meaningful decisions to players. A classic example is a "T" intersection in a dungeon. At a "T" intersection with a hall that goes straight left and right as far as you can see without any difference between them the players can not make a meaningful decision. To make it meaningful the players might hear a sound coming from the left, or see a flickering light to the right. Do they want to go toward the light? Do they want to go away from the sound? What they choose makes a difference, and it's a difference the players can control.
Tip Five: Build on conventions of dungeon design. Gary Gygax established a standard of dungeon design; players know that the deeper they go, the more dangerous the dungeon gets. Use that convention. Cook designs his dungeon with an additional progression, the deeper the weirder.
Tip Six: Make dungeons dynamic by including an "on revisit" section for dungeon rooms. Cook defines what players encounter when they come back to a room for the second time. Does anyone or anything come into the room while the PC's are exploring other rooms?
Tip Seven: Avoid the most classic story mistake of dungeon design. Don't create a story for a dungeon, one that buttresses the believability of the dungeon, that the players can not discover. The players should be able to learn all about the story of how this dungeon came to be, its reason for being.
Tip Eight: Add to the epic ambiance of a dungeon by showing them that they're not the first to try the dungeon. This discussion gave me a spark of inspiration. Although he didn't suggest this directly, I think I would like to create a dungeon that has the remains of other adventurers, ones that through knowledge check or back story the PC's recognize as having had some events of some renown and whose ultimate destiny was until that moment in doubt. At lower levels this could be a local youth who disappeared mysteriously weeks or months ago, and was never found. At higher levels this could be a storied person after whom the characters modeled their own carriers, and whose story turns out to have been different than what is commonly known -- and would really enhance the value of the treasure, too. A +2 spear is a kind of ho-hum at a certain point, but the +2 spear that the famous Gorack the barbarian used to slay the Dread Worm of Alasan Heights and which pierced the heart of the Mad Astigor the Red Handed is something special.
I haven't given it a try yet, but during the Q&A Cook said that he uses a program for drawing dungeons. The name I wrote down was "Dungeon Forge" which led me to the site where they have a dungeon drawing program called Dungeon Forge.