Revisiting The Dungeon-Crawl: 29 Dungeon Tips!

From Doug “Wraith” Lochery

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0161

A Brief Word From Johnn

This Week’s Article

I love dungeon crawls. Though I find I get bored if the PCs don’t get a chance to come up for air and roleplay and interact with civilization once in awhile, I enjoy the thrill of exploration, discovery, and tension that accompanies a good dungeon romp.

While you might already be familiar with many of the tips in this week’s article by Doug Lochery, as he states in his intro, dungeons risk becoming stale after awhile. So, I encourage you to measure your next crawl against each of Doug’s points just to make sure your upcoming adventure will be fun and inspiring.

GM Mastery Forum

In addition to the GMMastery Yahoo! group I started to discuss Roleplaying Tips issues and the GM Mastery books I’m writing, my publisher has also started up a GMMastery forum for those who prefer a web-based discussion area. Check it out at:

Library Entries

Thanks to everyone who sent in their list of favourite GM resource books. I’ve forwarded the list to Neil Faulkner and I’ll post the doc when he’s finished sorting and editing it.

Speaking of books, I just finished Book #1 of the Guardian Cycle, by Julia Gray. I enjoyed it very much as it presented a fantasy world with some unusual elements, such as an empire of mobile islands who regard continental folk as stationary ‘barbarians’. I also found the moon cycles and moon magic she’s developed quite interesting. I’m on to book #2 and still enjoying the series.

For more info: The Dark Moon (Guardian Cycle)


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Revisiting The Dungeon-Crawl: 29 Dungeon Tips!

The dungeon-crawl campaign is the traditional base for RPG adventures. Each of us can remember a particular part of a particular dungeon that makes us shudder or smile, depending on which side of the screen you were on at the time. Dungeoneering is the RPG enthusiast’s heritage.

Occasionally slipping into the comfortably familiar setting of a dungeon from time to time is something many groups do. Unfortunately for our hobby, the veterans, the jaded, and the novices among us can make a trip to the local villain’s dungeon somewhat stale through over-use of cliches, under use of description and character, and the sheer silliness of dungeon-crawl plot devices. Here are some tips to help stave off staleness when you revisit the dungeon-crawl!

Dungeons Aren’t Just Dungeons

The traditional set of castle dungeons/catacombs are not the only things that can be used to make dungeon-crawls. Caves, buildings, extra planar spaces, starships, and even things like enchanted forests or barren moons can be dungeons. Any space that restricts the PCs’ movement by using passages, walls, doors, rooms, and spaces is effectively a dungeon. Make use of these other dungeon settings to help make your dungeon-crawl stand out.

Keep your dungeon fresh and interesting by linking several dungeon settings together. The castle catacombs that break into caverns below the keep, the Enchanted forest before the mighty tower, or the strange dimension pockets found deep within the abandoned temple could help keep players excited and motivated to explore further.

Dungeons Need An Ecology

A common mistake is to completely forget how the creatures found within eat, drink and live. Ask yourself, how and what do the dungeon residents eat and drink? Where do they sleep or lair? It could be that they don’t live within the dungeon at all and are just lost, migrating, or hunting. The best dungeons have a convincing ecology. Intricate ecologies are not required–just create the basics and you’ll find that the rest takes care of itself.

Why Is The Dungeon There?

This is possibly the most important question you will ask yourself when writing the crawl and it MUST be answered. Rationalize the existence of your dungeon somehow and make sure that, one way or another (through clues, encounters, items, descriptions, or rumours), your players get to know about it! Players find it hard to suspend their disbelief if the dungeon location doesn’t have a reason.

Give The Players Some Impetus

Players need a reason to want to actually go into a dungeon environment, just as they need reasons to take on any other adventure. Make sure that you give them the motivation needed to explore, either through reward or circumstance.

Play It Safe

Design areas into your dungeon where the characters can be safe. Give them at least one secure spot where they won’t encounter anything and where they can easily defend themselves if chased. Such places might make excellent camps. Make sure that these areas are memorable in some way so the players know where to return to (see below).

Make Each Major Section And Room Unique

Make sure that different areas of your dungeon are different by using sound, visuals, or smell. Make each part memorable to the players. This will aid navigation for them (“Where was that locked door? Back where that rotten smell was!”) and make the feeling of progress more distinct.

What would give you the greatest feeling of progress? Slogging through 20 stone-walled rooms, or passing through a few rooms with elaborate friezes, then a couple of rooms engulfed in a miasma of horrid smells, followed by a bunch of corridors through which the sound of rattling chains kept following you?

Avoid Writing A One-Track Crawl

Build multiple routes into your dungeon. Make sure that the players have some choices to make when exploring. Too many good dungeons are spoiled by the feeling that the only choice to get to room F was to go through rooms A, B, C, D, and E in that order. Try to avoid “hub” style dungeons where the only choice of direction can be made at a central point with routes extending out from that. Ensure that some areas have more than one way to get to them.

Everyone Loves A Secret

Build into the dungeon things like secret panels, hidden passageways, and obscured treasures. Finding secrets like these gives a great sense of achievement to the players and a hint of memorability to your dungeon.

Create And Use Set-Pieces

When writing location descriptions and contents, set aside areas in which to set up set-pieces–events that the players have to deal with one way or another. Examples are traps (the old crushing wall scenario), forced encounters (flesh eating insect swarms coming down the corridor), puzzles, and situations (a climb to be made but no hand holds or ladder).

A party going into a room and facing 5 orcs is not a set piece, but a party going into a room, getting locked in by orcs, and having to find a way out is. Make sure set-pieces are solvable with a little thought and are not auto-kills should the players not “get it”.

The best set pieces are those that the players themselves trigger somehow, such as the rolling stone ball at the beginning of that Indiana Jones movie!

Do Not Welcome Mr. Monty Haul!

We all know Monty. Especially those of us who have played 1st and 2nd edition AD&D modules. Where treasure is concerned, too much of a good thing is BAD! Balance the treasure given to the level of the party and don’t leave too much of it around.

Make Them Work

Make players work for treasure. Defeating creatures, solving puzzles, and finding secrets are all popular ways to make them earn what they get. Treasure rarely just lies about.

Leave Yourself “Wildcard Zones”

Players always have a habit of surprising their GMs with their ingenuity, skill, luck, or foolishness. Leave areas in the dungeon where you can drop an impromptu encounter or set-piece to help equalize a game when things are going wrong for either you or the players. If you’re not very adept at thinking on your feet, write three options for the wildcard zone in advance–a Good zone, a Bad zone, and an UGLY zone. Woe betide powered-up players who enter an Ugly zone!

What’s Behind Door Number 13?

Make sure that not every door has a nasty creature laired behind it. Dungeons with groups of monsters behind every door degenerate into killing-spree lotteries where the order of the day becomes kick-down-a-door-kill-a-monster-steal- its-treasure. Make locations interesting, and not simply for the creatures that are found there.

Left Or Right?

Avoid just giving players the directions to choose from– describe the scene a little more. Constantly asking players if they want the left passage or the right passage makes them bored and makes your adventure blend into a mess of several bland choices. Describing simple things such as smells, colours, construction, or lighting helps make each option stand out a little more.

Is That Your Final Answer?

If you aren’t prepared to deal with a split party, appoint a player to be the decision maker for the group. When the players all want to go in different directions, ask this player “What’s your final answer?” and take the group in the direction he gives. Make sure that the decision maker is declared at the beginning of each session and rotate the post from time to time to promote a feeling of fairness.

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You Enter A 10 X 10 Room

Never give out accurate dimensions, unless the PCs actually spend time measuring. Simply give them a rough estimate based on their player’s ability and point of view. Leave out dimensions until players ask, if you can get away with it. When players spend a lot of time surveying the dimensions of an area, hit them with something nasty to help them on their way.

There are a few reasons to carry this practice, among them:

  • It gives you some leeway later if you make a mistake with positions.
  • The players will never be sure just how accurate that map really is.
  • It forces player involvement. They now have to ask for info rather than simply listening and choosing a direction.

N, S, E, W?

Avoid using compass directions when describing rooms/exits. Only do so if a player has a compass and actually asks something specific. Always describe locations relative to the position of the characters (i.e. in front of you, to the party’s left, behind you). This will help absorb the players in their character’s environment.

Use Suitable Wandering Monsters

Nothing destroys suspension of disbelief faster than discovering something woefully out of place. Whereas discovering such a thing once or twice prompts curiosity, repeatedly discovering it is game-destroying. Make sure that your wandering monsters fit with the setting and ecology of your dungeon creation.

Avoid Pop-Up Monsters

Wandering monsters don’t just “pop-up” out of nowhere. Their approach may be detected by wily characters. Ensure that wandering monsters are part of the environ they’re found in rather than a short-term addition to force a party onwards or to lift a boring patch. Sometimes merely hearing a wandering monster somewhere nearby is enough to spook players and give an area more character.

Move Creatures

The characters aren’t the only ones who can move around in dungeons. Monsters will also move around the dungeon–don’t be afraid to let them give chase! Using moving monsters can make some important encounters or treasure shift location. Use this technique to maximise opportunities that force players to explore.

Enforce Supply Issues

Characters have to carry gear around. Armour, weapons, treasure, food, water, rope–it’s all got to be carted about the dungeon to be of any use to the players. As most dungeon settings preclude the use of pack animals due to confined space, this either means each character carrying his own stuff or using hirelings.Make the players feel the weight of the supply situation. This adds a bit of tactical thinking to an otherwise straight-forward crawl. You can also use supplies as an equalizer (especially food/water). If the players are getting too powerful, give them a supply headache by attacking their stuff!

Avoid Taking Away Their Freedom

A good tip to game by, whatever the setting. Don’t ever force the players into a single mode of action. Leave them several options to play with and multiple actions to try to resolve any situation, even if you take them prisoner. Use clues, hints, and intuitions to reveal options when the party starts to feel stifled or forced.

Corridors And Passageways Are Rooms Too!

Too often are the words “The corridor is 50 paces long” uttered as a description. Corridors and passageways are not devoid of decor, texture, smell, contents or creatures. Each corridor is a location too and should be treated like it. Ensure that passages fit in with the style of the area of your dungeon they are found in.

Advance The Plot

Avoid just using your dungeon as an obstacle between the players and their goal. Use locations and encounters within the dungeon to advance the plot and keep the players focused on their goal. Multiple encounters with the big bad guy, killing the head villain early, finding out secrets about the bad guys, and stumbling across a sub-plot all serve to keep players interested by advancing the plot of the game.

Foil Monty

Are you finding that Monty Haul comes knocking due to over- successful players (or mis-calculated dungeon design)? Have some of the PCs’ loot stolen or lost; or change the amount of treasure still resident in the dungeon. Be subtle when adjusting treasure though–strong arm tactics are usually resented by players. Set pieces that affect the players’ treasure serve as a great equalizer.

Break Up Treasure Hunts

There are players who like to adventure simply to see how much stuff they can accumulate. Treasure is their goal. Unfortunately, such players can make even the best laid dungeon degenerate into a game of “kick-down-a-door-kill- the-monster-steal-it’s-treasure”. Stop this practice by forcing the player’s involvement in a sub-plot or situation that makes the above approach difficult to apply.For example, curse or poison the PC and have him chase the cure, steal his main weapon and have him hunt for a new one, force a bad supply situation, trap some doors (“kick me and I explode,” says the door), or have the main villain take an interest in him.

Incapacitate The Leader

If the players use a team leader or if you’ve appointed a party spokesperson, take that person out of the equation for a bit to sow some confusion and liven things up a bit. Don’t use this tactic too often though, or it becomes cliche.

Never Let Up

Dungeons are dangerous locales. If players are dawdling, force their hand by using wandering monsters, impromptu set- pieces, plot advances, and psychology tricks. The biggest killer of successful dungeons is directionless dawdling. Don’t let it happen.


NPC Essentials Is Now In Print!

Thanks to everyone who sent in their kind comments about my book NPC Essentials, a how-to guide for planning, designing, roleplaying, and managing NPCs in your games.

Here’s what people are saying:

“NPC Essentials is simply amazing, by far the best information on the creation and playing of NPCs that I’ve seen. I found myself inspired and pleased with every turn of the page.”
— Matthew F.

“I didn’t buy the book. Why not? Because my husband (another subscriber) already did! He can’t stop talking about how cool it is, and from the little he’s let me see, I have to agree. Your ideas on NPC creation were insightful and – more importantly – extremely helpful in whipping up fully developed, 3-dimensional NPCs.”
— Denise S.

“Actually I ended up buying it and you did an awesome job on [NPC Essentials]. A lot less d20 stuff then expected, plenty of NPC insight! I am just weary about buying d20 material as most of the technical aspects cannot be used with other games. But you did a great job at keeping it generic enough to be used with other gaming systems. Again, awesome job!!!”
— In His Grip, Brent D. Wisdom , Golgotha Games
Spiritual Warfare the RPG,

Book ordering info:

Online at my store ($13.46):

Through your Friendly Local Game Store (International):
Title: NPC Essentials
Publisher: RPGObjects
ISBN: 0-9724826-3-6


If you are a GM who can’t stand their campaigns made up of loose sheets of paper that possess the unique ability to get lost just when you need them, MyInfo will help you put an end to it!

MyInfo for Windows makes organizing campaigns, adventures, NPCs, and sites easy. Search for any information fast. All you have to do is convert your ideas into entertainment for you and your players.

[Comment from Johnn: Milenix didn’t pay me to say this, but I thought I’d chime in and say that I’ve been using MyInfo for gaming, work, and personal organization for over a year now. I vouch for their software.]

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Handling Evil PCs

From Gary T.

This is a pretty contentious suggestion, so beware. This method takes a cue from Palladium’s alignment system. I’ve found it to be far more useful than the traditional D&D– especially for evil characters’ motivations. Some think of them as more restricting, but when thought of as a guideline or a basic outlook on life, I think they make far more sense and actually help decide what the character may do.

The trick is to formulate a personal code for each evil PC. For example, quoting from the Palladium’s suggestion for an “aberrant” character:

An Aberrant character will…
2) Lie and cheat those not worthy of his respect.
3) May or may not kill an unarmed foe.
4) Not kill (may harm, kidnap) an innocent, particularly a child.
6) Does not resort to inhumane treatment of prisoners, but torture although distasteful, is a necessary means of extracting information.
7) Never tortures for pleasure.
9) Work with others to attain his goals.
11) Never betrays a friend.

I would suggest that you not hold yourself to only those listed in the Palladium books. Go through each of the points one by one. By charting how the character will most likely react to these (and other) situations, you essentially create a custom alignment. Both the players and GM now know specifically what kinds of “evil” behaviors to expect from the character, and can thus plan accordingly. This also moves away from the more nebulous concepts such as “chaotic”, and makes for less alignment-based arguments.

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Use Player Handouts To Introduce Settings

From Bill C.

The handout idea [to introduce settings] works in a variety of ways. You could have letters sent from a foreigner. If the writing is stilted and there is mention of odd things in the body of the letter, it serves as an introduction. Another option is to have the PCs find a journal or travelogue written by someone famous. Include a 250-500 word description of the area.

If you’re up for the extra work, include one or two subtle cultural items that the writer got dead wrong. For example, the players find a diary written by the famous adventurer Giles de Falconsroost. He describes traveling to the land of Kereth Zann where no one shows their face. The inhabitants were observing a religious month when he was there and Giles never found out that they take the hoods off for 11 months. So he wrote as if it were fact.

To not completely annoy the players, have them show up during the same time of observance, but as it’s ending. Then when the locals take off the hoods, you’ll see the PCs’ surprise but they might not feel completely suckered. And if the rest of the information was very factual (such as a description of how the Counselor to the Sheik actually runs the country), you’ve introduced the setting.

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Have The Players Award Each Other EXPs

From Amber M.

Here’s an idea for those people who may play Whitewolf based RPGs. My current Storyteller decided he was tired of trying to come up with a well rounded number of EXPs that people earned, especially when it came to someone who showed up for an hour and left, or someone who just didn’t feel well that night and wasn’t playing up to par.

He felt that he might be judging people too harshly and didn’t want people to feel he was singling them out in any way. So, he started a new experience system that most of us who also run games have picked up on.

We (at first) voted who was the best role player, who was the worst, etc. But, I began to voice my opinion that it wasn’t fair that way because what if two people got more time than the other two (there’s 4 of us), or if two people were really into their characters that night?

So, we decided that the PLAYERS voting for how much (between a range of numbers given by the Storyteller, which was usually 2 to 5 a night), was a much more efficient system. If someone really roleplayed that day, they’d get 5. If someone just didn’t feel well, but really gave it all they got, maybe the players take pity and give them 4 or 5 anyway. If the players get peeved because a player came over to play and left 20 minutes later (it’s happened in our group), they can decide to give less.

It is also confidential as each player writes their numbers on a piece of paper with the names of the players next to the numbers and hands them to the Storyteller. He adds up the numbers and divides by the number of people present, and that’s the number you get, unless he thinks you did a lot better or more poorly than the others think, in which case he might adjust it and write why.

I think it’s eliminated hard feelings among the players who thought they did really well but didn’t get high enough on the “chart” of people to get the kind of experience they deserved (in their mind). It also makes it interesting when the players begin counting their decimal places. Heh, you should see some of the numbers! I, personally, am sitting at 23.6666666667 exp! Now if only I could get it to round off….

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Units Of Measurement Resource

From Simon W.

Check out this site:


It has the standard metric conversion tables, but also great information about other measurements, such as hat sizes, paper weights, drought severity, and so on.

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Managing The Campaign Design Workload

From Tommy H.

ReRPT#127 – Using ‘Top 7 Lists’ To Help Assimilate Published Game Worlds

I remember an article about creating top 7 lists for various game elements. A friend of mine came up with a similar idea.

I tend to over-create and end up with a book full of notes. And, instead of focusing on one idea at a time, I often can’t make a choice of which idea to work on next, or I’m slowed down by an immense follow-up on a single concept.

So, he suggested that I made up a “core of creation”.

The core consists of as many common game elements as I can imagine, (new treasure, new types of magical disasters, new traps, Kingdoms, etc.). For each element, I create 10 new concepts and stop at 10 until all elements have 10 concepts. [Comment from Johnn: this is a great tip. Building up your campaign or game world in iterations helps when bits of information are dependant on each other and there’s no clear starting point. For example, do you design deities first then figure out how magic works, or do you handle how magic governs the gods initially?

Adding details in small, digestible chunks to each element helps flesh things out in stages so you can take what’s already been designed into account when tackling each item without painting yourself into a corner.]

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Encouraging Passive Players To Speak Out

From Samir

We have players who step out and take charge and we have players who are content to stand back and only occasionally participate. While running a high fantasy, save the multiverse game, I placed the heroes in a situation where each was required to complete a quest. When it was time to begin the quests the players realized that only the quested PC could speak to the NPCs. No one else in the party could interact with any NPC. The more aggressive players had to step back and let the quested PC lead them. Everyone had their day in the sun and the less aggressive players now jump in more with their comments and actions since I tried that tactic.