How To Keep Dungeons Interesting – 5 Ways
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1223
How To Keep Dungeons Interesting – 5 Ways
How do you make dungeon crawling perpetually interesting? This was a frequent tip request made in December’s Dungeon23 poll.
I struggle with this too, whether it’s an endless series of rooms in a megadungeon, a series of 5 Room Dungeons, or just a large dungeon level.
Here are some tips on how to keep dungeon crawls interesting, based on my experiences so far:
1. Create a Plot Arc
Create one core villain or mission for the party to pursue over the long-term. Whether it’s to escape alive, defeat the BBEG, or discover a secret our villain guards, we need to give players a good reason to keep crawling.
2. Learn How to Make Small Missions
Another word we could use here is Stakes:
- What happens if the characters lose?
- What if they succeed?
- Who else would be affected by party loss or victory?
Here’s a simple framework to create dungeon crawling Stakes:
- Or Else…
And here are 6 ways on how to raise Stakes to keep your dungeon stories challenging.
What we want to do is turn gameplay into a series of small and meaningful goals, which in my lingo I call Missions.
For example, we have four gobbos in a room. The party kicks down the door, prepared to kill and loot. We can transform this standard type of encounter into a Mission by introducing at least one Stake:
- There are prisoners here that must be protected or saved
- The gobbos have key information the party would find valuable
- The party hears sounds of more monsters coming…they need to wrap this up fast
- As the PCs charge in, a panicked goblin accidentally starts a fire that could easily spread
- As the first character enters they see one gobbo finish setting a bomb to go off in three rounds
Change repetitive, one-dimensional encounters into dynamic situations by turning them into small Missions.
3. Chunk Your Dungeon Into Factions
Adding a social conflict layer to dungeons helps a lot, and I rarely have a crawl now that doesn’t include at least two sentient groups in conflict. Adding factions will appeal to your roleplayers. You can also create interesting dilemmas and puzzles by having factions control or possess things your party values.
In dungeon settings, I find it best to have three factions, all neutral to the party at start:
- What is the theme of each faction?
- Who leads each faction?
- What is each faction’s goal other than survival?
- What does each faction have that at least one other factions wants?
Then I give each faction a territory to defend, passive defenses (traps and hazards), and active defenses (scouting parties or solos, sentries, warning traps).
Finally, I ensure each faction has treasure or something very valuable the party would want.
More faction tips:
- Fantastic Factions => 4 Tricks To Get The Most Out Of Your Villain Factions
- Horde-ing => Creating Factions the Fast and Easy Way
- The Faction Pyramid Technique
- Create Faction Pyramids in Campaign Logger
4. Use Color Themes
A quick hack to make each level or zone of a dungeon crawl interesting is to theme with colors.
Start with a color:
- Emerald green
- Pale white
- Golden yellow
- Navy blue
- Flint grey
Then figure out how this color manifests:
- Faction garb
- Construction material
- Environment condition
- Type of treasure
- Texture of a relationship
The color is not our main goal here. Instead, we use it for inspiration to change things up and theme a dungeon area.
5. Create Mysteries
Another word for mystery is discovery. What secret does any given room, location, or dungeon zone have? Players love mysteries. And mysteries prompt curiosity to help make crawls interesting.
I prefer to break my dungeons into 5 Room Dungeons. This makes design faster and easier as I can focus on one dungeon area at a time. This approach also helps us drop in cool mysteries for the party to uncover.
Room V: Treasure & Revelation provides the perfect place to drop in a twist or secret. Following Room V, we brainstorm clues to provide hints and build up the mystery in the other four rooms.
We can even use the 5 Room dungeon model to plot out our clues:
- Room I: A clue reveals the presence of the secret or mystery
- Room II: More clues get characters speculating about what the mystery is
- Room III: A false trail leads the party to a wrong conclusion about the mystery, or the mystery appears further out of reach
- Room IV: The party faces the primary conflict presented by the mystery
- Room V: The mystery gets revealed though it might require some cunning to find or understand it
For example: a mysterious noise can be heard in this area of the megadungeon:
- Room I: The PCs hear a faint sound of low moaning, but they cannot tell precisely what it is or what’s causing it, but they can tell there’s a steady rhythm to it.
- Room II: The sounds takes on more definition. It’s like a creature breathing. It seems to be louder when facing north. It’s period is five seconds. There’s also a smell of brimstone now.
- Room III: A strange echo effect makes characters think the sound is coming from the wrong room (a monster lair).
- Room IV: The party faces a demon and minions but they are not the source of the sound! They do block the way to it, however.
- Room V: The sound comes from a forge’s bellows. Demons and their slaves work tirelessly to create weapons and armor for evil factions. (Gold+ WoAs, check out 5RDZ#4: The Furnace of Natasibit-Chu.)
The key to GMing mysteries in dungeons is to put just one mystery into each zone, not one per room. Then have the zone drop clues and build curiosity, drama, and interest in the mystery. This helps keep gameplay compelling in the short term for your group.
More Dungeon Tips
Try these five ways to keep your dungeon crawls interesting. What do you do to make dungeons engaging and defeat their inherent repetitive nature?