How to Build a Dungeon for D&D 5e: What is a Dungeon?

This question gets bandied around an awful lot with new DMs. The fact that the game is titled Dungeons and Dragons sort of keys the prospective game runners that two things have to make an appearance in their game, otherwise it isn’t really a game of D&D. Leaving aside the reasons why every good game of D&D doesn’t necessarily need a dragon (editor’s note: dragons are indeed rad), the basic unit of D&D is, at least in my estimation, still the Dungeon.

I’ve circulated in the forums and on Reddit and it seems to me that the idea of a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl is somewhat out of vogue. I see a lot of people shaking the proverbial pitchfork about how it makes no sense that underground ruins populated by weird monsters are strangely everywhere, and that the excuse that some mad wizard needed a place to stash their experiments is hackneyed and tired. I can agree that it’s strange that you can’t walk into the wilderness for too terribly long before stumbling over the decaying bones of an old castle moat house or a weird keep on the borderlands, but I still have a good deal of affection for a tight, location-based adventure.

That’s what a dungeon is, when you get right down to it. It’s a mysterious location, far enough away from the beaten path to ensure that the local townsfolk aren’t dropping in all the time, where monsters might make their home alongside their treasure. The decaying moat-house and the crumbling keep, can certainly be dungeons. The abandoned burial crypts in the old, abandoned part of town are dungeons too. The cave system at the foot of the waterfall a day’s march from the thorp is a dungeon. Even that place where the forest gets too dense for the road to cut through, and local wisdom tells you to never stray from the path can be a dungeon.

All of these places, and all of the ones that you’re probably thinking of right now, have some things in common. They’re interesting locations, cut off from easy access to civilization, and they’re a perfect place to find something nasty waiting in their depths. That’s the basic unit of D&D, right there. Adventurers seek out strange, mysterious places out away from the relative safety of civilization, because that’s where the danger and treasure live.

Compelling Locations

When I built my very first dungeon, it was a trap-door leading down into a wizard’s secret laboratory. It was a conspicuous hatch into the side of the mountain, because I was under the impression that dungeon-delvers would see an obvious entrance to a dungeon and immediately jump down into the death-trap riddled labyrinth below. They did, of course, because we were playing D&D and I had the subtlety of a 14-year-old. They’d signed up to raid a dungeon, and I’d held up my end of the bargain. There were monsters and treasure down there, and they wanted it.

These days, we might have to think a little bit more deeply about the hooks we scatter, but the idea remains largely the same. You don’t have to hang signs on the dungeon announcing that it is in fact a dungeon, like I did. But if you create a space in your game world that has a compelling hook, your players will clamor to discover what its deal is. Ideally, you’ll have a whole bunch of these spaces on your map surrounded by local rumors, grave admonitions, and little marginalia like “Treasure?” to clue your players that adventure be that way.

So what makes a location compelling? I mean, aside from the obvious fact that you’re dropping hints that adventure be that way. Typically the people, the NPCs, that your players are talking to when they blow into town will be your greatest tool toward making a location compelling. Perhaps the lure of treasure isn’t enough to get the adventurers to adventuring. It’s not the early days of the hobby anymore, and the titanic storylines found in your favorite actual-play podcast are raising the bar on what a hook should look like. We’ve got to move with the times, right? Just knowing that the caverns to the north of town exist isn’t enough to get the ponies saddled. The ghost story about the hand-wringing shade of the cavalry officer who absconded with the king’s army payroll only to hide it in that cave might, though. The boarded-up well in the center of the Old Quarter wouldn’t merit a second look until the town drunk tells your PCs about the odd smoke and laughter that rises from it when the moon is full. Rumors are an easy way to build interest and make even a mundane-looking dungeon entrance look compelling.

In the other direction, you can go a little more gonzo with it. This is a game of high-fantasy, and just making the location look too tempting to pass up is a completely fair tactic. That cavern might not be so easy to walk away from when your torch-light reflects off of a polished brass door on the back wall carved with scenes of titanic battles between demons and wizards. The broken tower is easy enough to brush past until the light of the rising moon reveals the hazy outline of the intact tower rising like a proud spire of silver. I want to know what’s behind that door. I want to climb the ghost-tower. There’s cool stuff in there, I can feel it.

Off the Beaten Path

This seems like a no-brainer. If the dungeon is inside town, then everyone would’ve already picked over it. There’d be no monsters, no treasure, no adventure, right? Partially. There are plenty of great dungeons that you can run inside a city or a town, but to make them feel like a real dungeon, help can’t be just around the corner. That’s the real reason why dungeons have to be a little bit out of the way. It’s not that no one else has been here, it’s that no one is coming to save you.

Mom? Please pick me up. I’m scared.

That knowledge that you have left the safety of civilization and are out in the dangerous wilds is key, even if it’s just a long climb up and out of the catacombs beneath the city. Help should be far enough away to make dealing with the dungeon and its dangers feel tense. That tension will ratchet up as the PCs expend the resources at their disposal, and that’s kind of the juice of dungeon-crawling. Unlike random encounters, players can’t just go “nova” and expend all of their big-ticket abilities and spells to smash through the first bits of the dungeon. Help and safety are out of reach, a long rest will be dangerous, and now the characters are biting their nails over whether they’ve got what it takes to make it through. That’s good tension.

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be the opportunity for characters to retreat. Running back to town to nurse their wounds, identify some magic items, and sleep in a bed when things get too hairy down in the dungeon is in keeping with the grand traditions of the game. Very rarely should you deploy the one-way door, the-only-way-out-is-through sort of dungeon. Those can be fun, but if every dungeon your heroes stumble across is a grueling death-march to get back to the surface, it’s going to get old really fast, especially as the body-count starts to rise.

Monsters, Traps, Treasure

Dungeons are where you find deadly adversaries, spring-loaded death, and shiny treasure. These are the building blocks of a good dungeon. While some may shy away from traps, I think that the occasional incentive to bring along someone canny and sneaky is in the spirit of the game. More than that, traps to me encompass a broader subheading that includes puzzles, adversarial terrain, obstacles, and all of the other cool stuff that makes a dungeon more than a collection of white 10 ft. by 10 ft. by 10 ft. rooms. We’ll talk more in the coming articles about each of these in turn, because they’re that important.

Today, I really wanted to get the basics down. If you are one of the DMs who dismisses dungeons as a ridiculous convention of earlier iterations of Dungeons and Dragons that have no place in the game as it is played today, I would advise taking another look at this most basic building block of the game. If you don’t think that a compelling location-based adventure with an interesting hook, off the beaten path, filled with monsters, traps, and treasure is in keeping with the spirit of the game, I can’t be sure that we’re playing the same game.

…it’s this one, right?

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