Adventure Design: Build From The Monster’s POV

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1108

When building cunning locations for your adventures and encounters, build out from their denizens’ point of view.

Here’s a way you can do this in 5 steps:

  • Step 1. Original Use
  • Step 2. Who Built It?
  • Step 3. Rooms
  • Step 4. Map & Key
  • Step 5. Recycle

Step 1. Original Use

Many locations have an origin story, which is one of the most compelling story types.

Why was the place built?

If a natural location, what was its most significant and formative use? What or who added new areas, tidied up the place, installed things, carved art into the walls, crafted stairs, and built fires?

For example, let’s think about a dungeon. It started as a few caves connected by narrow tunnels. The caves had several stalactites and stalagmites.

Many animals laired in the caves for years.

Then intelligent creatures moved in. These creatures made significant changes to the place, so I’ll use them for the origin story.

(Fun fact: I remember which is which because stalactite has a C in it and stalactites hang from Ceilings. And stalagmite has a G in the word, and stalagmites are located on the Ground.)

Step 2. Who Built It?

Who were the architects?

What minds decided on the layout, feng shui, the size of spaces, and the spacing of spaces?

Most important, what traits did the architects have?

  • Intelligence
  • Body type and build => height, weight, limbs, strength, fortitude
  • Movement => types, speed
  • Biological needs => sexes, reproduction, food, water
  • Social needs => community, family units, hierarchies, food acquisition

For example, let’s say our cave dwellers were large lizard people.

  • Intelligence: Moderate
  • Body: Slim, tall, strong, flexible, big tail
  • Movement: Bipedal, average speed, swimmers
  • Biology: Oviparous, male/female, carnivore, dirty water is ok
  • Social: M/F hunt, elders raise young, tribal identity, lead by strongest

This is not a deep or scientific approach. We just need a few attributes to decide on how the location was built, modified, or used to match its purpose.

Step 3. Rooms

The architects’ needs will affect how the location was used.

What we want here is a list of essential locations, places, and rooms the place would need to serve its inhabitants and purpose.


  • Climate and weather
  • Geography
  • Rest areas
  • Food areas
  • Defense
  • Waste and hygiene
  • Social areas
  • Leadership zone
  • Ceremonial places
  • Tool use and production areas
  • Weird and unique spot

That last bullet you add in to ensure your adventure location has something special about it. It’s the perfect place for Room II: Puzzle, or Room V: Revelation or Twist.

For our lizardfolk, let’s brainstorm:

  • Climate: hot summers, cold winters, wet spring and fall
  • Geography: low ground, prone to flooding, limestone and dolomite
  • Rest: slept in communal areas, leisure was done in nature
  • Food: shared raw food in one place they kept clean
  • Defense: an outside layer and then the first cave
  • Waste: outside
  • Social: nature or the rest area
  • Leadership: no special place
  • Ceremonial: yes, they had a shaman who needed a space
  • Tools: weapons, simple armour, carving tools, building tools
  • Weird: a room where they shed their skin

Note that we aren’t matching rooms to the location or a map yet.

Instead, we’re gathering basic requirements with a quick brainstorm so we can key the location in the next step.

I find decoupling the architect’s needs from map helps me think better and gives me less anxiety about turning a map into a Tetris game.

Now we match location idea with needs of the architects.

Slot each room need into your map and make a numbered key to note locations with uses.

It’s at this step we also tweak our map to suit the architects.

For my lizards, the natural tunnels between caves were difficult terrain because the creatures were large and tunnels narrow. Ground was also uneven, cracked with large gaps in places, had a couple of flooded sumps, and was partially blocked by stalagmites and stalactites.

Something I do a poor job of is not thinking big enough. I let my inner critic and sense of scarcity reduce my map designs.

So I have to remind myself to give my origin stories lots of time, tons of labour, and whatever resources and effects I want to make a cool location.

Therefore, over a period of decades, my lizard peeps used their intelligence and tools to widen the tunnels, clear out the debris and obstacles, carve off side caves where the rock was softest, and set up a good drainage system.

They also acquired a taste for the cave mushrooms they discovered and set aside an area to cultivate them.

They cleared a bunch of the stalagmites and stalactites (no one wants to bang their head against a petrified mineral cone in the middle of the night, not even lizards.) They carved ones they kept into amazing serpentine art.

Winters were tough, so they made heat barriers. These eventually became doors, which kickstarted the idea of privacy.

The wet seasons were problematic, so they carved out culverts to protect their special rooms.

The skin cave (eww) featured lots of crystals, perfect rubbing up against while molting. Shamans turned this cave into one with religious significance.

Armed with these details, I make changes to my map. Some spots look natural, some look “manmade.” I also realize I need an outdoors area for their defenses, hunting grounds, waste, and so on.

We’re now ready for our dungeon or location set up for campaign use.

We’ve got our origin story. And we’ve used the architects’ point of view to build the original location out.

I went a bit overboard with the details. You don’t need to write all that stuff out unless you enjoy it.

You really just need to think about who used the location and why it was built or what it was used for.

We use this POV for a nod to realism, but also to set an interesting stage for your adventure.

Our location now has history. And a layer of thinking and detail you can use to enhance your encounters.

To build out our adventure location, we repeat the steps! Easy peasy.

Original Use

We tweak this to be current use. What’s our lovely location being used for now?

Who Built It?

This becomes, Who are the Current Occupants?


Here’s a big boon from this approach: we get an existing map that’s already been customized to a monster’s POV.

We can re-use many rooms from our first brainstorm, making this step even faster.

Step 4. Map & Key

We again map current room needs to the map. But this time we have an existing map to work with.

And here’s an opportunity for us.

We want to juxtapose old rooms with new uses for strange and unusual combinations. This will give you fresh new encounter locations, sometimes curious, sometimes wondrous, sometimes horrifying.

For example, let’s say our lizard lair has become a bandit hideout.

  • Wild mushrooms grow everywhere — be sure to create lots of mushroom effects
  • The drainage system is sophisticated but slimy and blocked up creating an encounter hazard
  • The art and carved rocks — a hook to learn about the lizardfolk who also might have hidden a horde of treasure somewhere in the caves
  • Lizard eggs — perhaps petrified, perhaps in magical stasis — twisted over time and if disturbed, about to hatch a new Danger
  • The skin room (eww) for weird threats, hazards, or treasure

The bandits occupy the defense area, the social and rest cavern, and have found cool stuff in the leader cave, but have not explored the other areas out of fear.

We’ve got a double story here now, which adds depth to our adventures.

Step 5. Recycle

We can do this as often as we like.

First it was the lizardpeople.

Then it was bandits who were nuked by the fungi and turned into shroom monsters who still dwell in the complex, some discovering deeper areas the lizards never found.

Then it was a sleuth of owlbears who preferred the skin room. They discovered the ancient lizard eggs and ate some and hatched some with their own.

Today it’s home to 10,000 dire bats who’ve covered the front caves in two feet of guano. A queen bat dwells in the old lizardman leader cave.


Too often I see adventures with one-dimension: the current occupants.

And the design of the place, alas, comes from the adventure designer’s point of view, not the denizens’ of past and present.

I saw a mine map the other day where the cart tracks had several 90 degree corners. Not only hard to build, but very hard to push carts like that.

We don’t need to pass a real-life test with our adventure location designs. A nod to realism only, based on the steps in this article will serve you well.

In addition, follow this recipe to give your adventures mystery, deeper stories, and greater depth of detail.

I find this recipe becomes an idea generator. It takes a lot off the creative pressure.

Even if you make the first use quite boring, you get a lot of choices and ideas when you layer on the next or current use.

You do not need to make the origin story wondrous or filled with hooks. But by having an origin story, your Recycle step will inherit many details and give you much inspiration.

Try the GM Map out yourself:

  • Step 1. Original Use
  • Step 2. Who Built It?
  • Step 3. Rooms
  • Step 4. Map & Key
  • Step 5. Recycle

Let me know how it goes!