So your group is coming over in half an hour for a session and oops, you forgot to prepare anything for this week. It happens to everyone sooner or later and it can be stressful. You may think that the only choice is to cancel D&D and just prep for next week. But what if we told you you can make a whole dungeon that could last multiple sessions in just 30 minutes? Here’s our step by step guide for making your 30 minute dungeon.
Step 1: Get Your Map
If you’re short on time you likely can’t make an elaborate map, but that’s no problem if you have the internet. There are a ton of good map generators online and even more pre-made maps that are only a google search away. The hardest decision here will be choosing what type of map you need. You can use any you like, but we find caves or traditional dungeons work best and are easiest to work with.
You can even check out our Resources page. We have a number of community map makers listed. Check them out and use their maps for your campaign.
Once you select your map type, make sure it has plenty of rooms and areas to use. We recommend having about 20 areas, but you can get by on a few as 10 easily. If you’re using one of the generators from our resources section, you can determine your map size with a few mouse clicks. If you’re just grabbing a pre-made map from the internet or another campaign module you have lying around, just count up the rooms or sections.
Step 2: Prepare Your Map
Now that you have your map you can prepare it for your adventure. First, start by choosing your starting room. This will be where the story begins. The adventures will get their first clues and the setting unfolds from there. You can choose any area as a starting point. We recommend starting in the middle of the map for the most branching paths.
After you get your starting point, go through and number your dungeon areas. It can be helpful if you do this in the sequence the rooms appear in, but it really does not matter. Once you get your rooms numbered, create a new text document and start a numbered list. Each room will represent a challenge or encounter.
Step 3: Doors, Locks, and Keys
This is where you get the most value out of the 30 minute dungeon. If you’ve ever played a Legend of Zelda game you already know how to use keys and locks to make a linear experience seem much more complex. Start by putting doors around your dungeon every couple of rooms. You can use a few different systems for locks. You can use permanent keys on doors that have symbols or colors on the locks that correspond to each key.
Expendable keys are also an option. This is where each key the players get is destroyed after use. However, you might run the risk of your players getting stuck in part of the dungeon. Make sure whichever system you use your players won’t hard lock themselves into your dungeon.
After you’ve placed your doors, place the keys throughout the dungeon. Try to place them sequentially so that your players find a key around the time they find a locked door. It can be a good idea to place them in a way that allows for backtracking. This allows your players to become familiar with areas and they will remember when they need to return to a location later once they get the appropriate key. This only takes a couple of minutes to do, but can add a few hours to the dungeon on average.
The real secret here is that small steps in preparation can lead to compounding returns in game play. In this way, depth can be created with minimal effort and time, which you happen to be short on.
Step 4: Add Encounters and Challenges
Now that you have a map with a path through your dungeon, you need to fill it with traps, monsters, and treasure. We have some generators in our resources section that can help you populate a dungeon with monsters and more.
For encounters, we recommend using Kobold Fight Club. This tool will get you balanced encounters for your party’s make up fast. Using their filters can even help you manage a theme for the monsters you choose.
For non-monster rooms you can use Total Party Kill to get a list of ideas for your remaining rooms. It will recommend themed areas, traps, treasure and more. The best thing to do here is to take the basic concepts and flesh them out. Improv goes a long way here. You can create a lot of fun interactions by listening to what areas your players find interesting to explore.
Traps are something that you should use a lot here. DonJon does this really well. They not only give you traps that are fun, but also help you manage the difficulty of each one. This will easily add a lot of play time to your dungeon and provide your rouges and rangers with something important to do.
If you can add puzzles to your dungeon in a short amount of time, by all means do so, but don’t feel you have to. A puzzle can sometimes be difficult to implement and can often leave your adventures stumped or frustrated. There are lots of easy ways to add some quick puzzles to the dungeon. Try looking up simple riddles, or pulling them from other campaigns.
If you are going to try to fit puzzles into your 30 minute dungeon, the best way to do this in a short time is to follow a theme. If your 30 minute dungeon is themed as an old dwarven ruin, adventurers shouldn’t find elvish writing everywhere. Just be consistent and make each one a little harder than the last. This gradually increases difficulty and allows your players to think of your 30 minute dungeon as a cohesive adventure.
Step 5: Treasure, Rest Areas, and the Exit
When adding the finishing touches, start with treasure. You can roll on a random treasure table like the ones in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Alternatively, you can pull a list up from a generator. You can add as much or as little treasure as you like. You can also add objects that might have significance for a quest the adventurers are in the middle of or one you plan on introducing.
After loot, you’ll need to label areas on your map where your adventurers can camp or fortify for rest sites. A watch schedule or overnight encounters can make it feel like monsters are moving around the dungeon as the heroes try to rest. The main advantage to a rest site is allowing spell casters to replenish spent spell slots. This helps to balance the number of encounters to take player spell expenditure into account.
This is a disadvantage of putting together a dungeon so quickly. Rest sites will allow you to overcome this imbalance. If you’re the type of DM who has players who don’t mind being at a disadvantage, keep these rooms to a minimum.
The very last thing that your 3o minute dungeon needs is the exit. You can nest it between a few locked doors or put it at the end of your dungeon path. There’s really no wrong way to implement the exit in the dungeon. You may even want to make your dungeon exit midway through the dungeon. The final rooms can be optional and loaded with extra treasure guarded by extra bosses.
Step 6: Adding Story
This is the part of the 30 minute dungeon that requires a little thought. Why are your players in a dungeon suddenly? Why can’t they just leave out the front? What is their goal? You can do a little bit of railroading here.
The dungeon can be introduced as something your heroes fall into, having them be kidnapped by a wizard, or even have the dungeon be something that they stumble into and the doors magically seal behind them. However they get in there, it needs to be something that has no easy exit. This may sound a little forced, but for a 30 minute dungeon build you don’t have a lot of options.
Once they are in the dungeon, it’s really a great time to add some story elements. You can place diaries, scrolls, or historical writings on the walls throughout the dungeon to give it a certain feel and build upon your world as a whole. This kind of improvisation can really make this feel like something you spent weeks on rather than a measly half an hour.
Putting it All Together
Building a fun dungeon to crawl through doesn’t need to take a lot of time and it can be a fun challenge to put yourself through. The more of these you build, the faster you will get. Once you find your footing, you may even be able to build out areas on the fly during the session while players are leveling up or taking rests.
There’s a lot of versatility that comes from being able to build dungeons like this. You can even stack multiple dungeons together to create bigger adventures. So try a 30 minute dungeon and see if your players can tell just how quickly you were able to put things together. It’s a small investment for potential hours of enjoyment.