Plot Your Dungeons with This Simple Grid System

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0720

Plot Your Dungeons with This Simple Grid System

The Nine Sector System of Dungeon Design

I saw Castle Oldskull ~ CDDG1: The Classic Dungeon Design Guide ~ Book 1: Forging the Underworld (yup, that’s the full actual title) by Kent David Kelly in the Amazon Kindle store and on a whim purchased it.

The book is a couple hundred pages of dungeon building goodness, brimming with tables and idea lists. I’m doing research for my upcoming 5 Room Dungeons Workshop [], so I was hoping to see new methods and design processes within Oldskull’s pages.

The book did not disappoint, giving me the Nine Sector System design approach and the colours design approach.

Nine Sector System

This method breaks down to a bunch of steps that I’ve consolidated into just four for you:

  1. Create a 3×3 grid on paper or in your preferred app
  2. Make each grid box one zone in your dungeon
  3. Write two or three notes per zone about major foes and features
  4. Note stairways and exits

This is a super way to plot your big dungeon out fast during early design stages.

I especially like the stairways and exits step at this abstract level. I’ve commented before on the importance of transitions, and area transitions are one type and key to understand for pacing and story.

Colour Your Grid

Next, with the colours design approach, you code each sector green, yellow, orange, or red to indicate danger and lethality level.

Green zones are the least dangerous.

Red zones are overwhelming for the PCs.

Kent Kelly does not make comment on how to rate lethality. I would go about it by assuming the PCs are fully rested and resourced as you design. Then, when you run the dungeon, roughly rate the PCs as 0, 50% or 80% depleted. For each rate of depletion, bump the colours up one lethality level.

For example, a green zone becomes yellow at 50% party depletion and red at 80%. This is super rough, but should help prevent TPKs. (Refer to last week’s Musing “I’m killing PCs and the fun doing this” for how to warn PCs about danger levels.)

This approach gives you a consistent design and a fast way to assess realtime gameplay.

I’m going to create my own version of colours for the 5 Room Dungeon Workshop. This will do nicely for my Spikes of Danger system I’m developing. Only I think I’ll use blue for a Spike instead of the orange colour Kent suggests.

Quick review of Castle Oldskull

Here’s a quick review, plus a list of the 28 steps it proscribes for building a dungeon.

Oldskull delves into 28 steps for building your dungeon or megadungeon. Steps are simple idea joggers, such as, The Builders of the Dungeon. Some steps come with random tables or lists, and I found lots of inspiration here. More steps come with three or so paragraphs of advice, which I found interesting reads.

CDDG1 ends with an example “over the shoulder” thinking out loud dungeon build, called Goblin Head.

Here are the 28 dungeon building steps summarized:

  1. The Starting Scenario
  2. The Adventure Twist
  3. The Benefactor
  4. The Surface Area and the Base of Operations
  5. The Rumors About the Dungeon
  6. The Way to the Dungeon
  7. The Low Path, The High Path, The Middle Path
  8. Design Decisions Resulting from the Random Encounters
  9. The Builders of the Dungeon
  10. The Second Dungeon Builders
  11. The Third Dungeon Builders
  12. The Fourth Dungeon Builders
  13. The Fifth Dungeon Builders
  14. Summarizing the Dungeon Levels
  15. The Dungeon Surround
  16. Real-World Inspirations
  17. Dungeon Verisimilitude
  18. Considering Realistic Caves and Dungeons
  19. Dungeon Level Themes
  20. Charting the Dungeon Levels
  21. Overall Atmosphere for Dungeon Level 1
  22. Room Types for Dungeon Level 1
  23. Doors for Dungeon Level 1
  24. Corridors for Dungeon Level 1
  25. Connectors Between the Surface and Dungeon Level 1
  26. Beginning the Wireframing of Dungeon Level 1
  27. Connectors Between Dungeon Levels 1 and 2
  28. Step 28 and Beyond

The author takes a very old school approach to dungeon design. Like, back to Zork, Telengard, and Temple of Apshai. And you can tell he has a real passion for the subject matter. I would love to be in one of his dungeon crawls with throttle set to gritty mayhem.

Kent clearly states he’s after good gaming more than realism. I share the same GM style. He does give some advice towards creating realistic dungeons, which you can dial up or down per your style.

Overall, great book. I wish I had it in hardcopy. Classic old school dungeon design with tons of ideas and advice. Good stuff. I’ll be using my own flavour of his colours system for my 5 Room Dungeon Workshop. If you’re interested in more information about the workshop, sign up here. []