Literal Dungeons

In Dungeons and Dragons most of the time when we visit a “dungeon” it’s actually just a location. Despite being part of the name, most adventures don’t take place in actual dungeons and players rarely fight dragons.

This isn’t a point we’re bring up as a complaint. On the contrary, we find DnD to be highly versatile for all sorts of settings and enemy encounters. But what if you wanted to make a literal dungeon for your game? That’s what we’re picking apart today.

A Dungeon in Name, a Dungeon in Practice

When we think of what gets labeled as a dungeon in DnD on a regular basis we typically think of ruins, temples, tombs, and vaults. All these are classic DnD settings that make for thrilling adventures. While they’re all great locations to explore and each has their own unique qualities, a proper dungeon does something these locations do not typically do: contain prisoners.

Non-dungeon settings, still often called dungeons, usually get their fair share of use because they have a separate label to call upon. A temple is a religious foundation used as a dungeon. A vault is a dungeon that stores treasure. A fortress is a dungeon that houses and protects a force or an organization.

These are all great locations, but since they have unique qualities, they get more usage than a dungeon dungeon which, partly due to it’s overlapping label, is often overlooked. 

What kind of Dungeon? It just says dungeon…

We understand that the word dungeon has mutated a lot over time, especially in its usage in games. But the most traditional meaning of the term is underutilized and offers an amazing amount of versatility.

This idea of a more traditional dungeon works as a strong foundation for your game’s setting because it enforces a limitation on what the scenario should be about. This is the same foundational limitation that you get when you set up a temple or a vault or a fortress. When a location is designed around a single principle you end up making better locations.

The Concept of a Dungeon

When we limit a dungeon to being a place that contains a prisoner it’s easy to think of amazing usages in DnD. For example, a villain’s fortress where war prisoners are sent, or an ancient arcane dungeon holding a powerful monster. The key here is that dungeons are meant to keep things in and there’s a ton of stuff that needs containing in the DnD universe. Let’s look closer at some concepts for dungeon designs at their core.

Dungeons are designed around what they are supposed to contain. A dungeon made to hold normal humanoid prisoners will look different from one designed to contain beasts, which will look different from one designed specifically to hold wizards. Wizard jail.

Knowing that a dungeon is built around a specific purpose helps identify how it is built. An evil tyrant’s dungeon might be built to house normal people, but could also be designed around torment and fear.

A dungeon like this might not have a way for guards to enter and could simply have a pit as an intake for prisoners. No one would know what happens within, but it would be designed as a spectacle for any onlooker who might think of crossing the tyrant.

If you use this in a campaign where your party needs to overthrow this tyrant you could design a quest around them infiltrating the dungeon specifically to find someone there who has the potential to help foment revolution. And this is just the beginning of a concept, as you can do a lot working off of this one simple idea.

Let’s look at another concept: the ancient evil dungeon. Here the dungeon sits abandoned. No guards roam these halls and no one dares tread near cursed land where the dungeon entrance sits. Legend tells of the ancient heroes who came together and sealed an evil force deep within the dungeon. They built an elaborate prison to be protected and maintained with each passing generation.

However, with years of peace after the ancient evil was sealed away, each passing generation grew less and less concerned with the dungeon itself. What once was a historical account became a legend, and what was a sacred duty to protect became a waste of someone’s time… or so the people thought.

This continued until the dungeon lay as it does now, in terrible disrepair. Time has not been kind to the prison and the seal holding the ancient evil at bay weakens with each passing day. As the seal grows weaker, the evil’s presence seeps out and corrupts the land. Normal animals turn feral and grow into dire beasts. Smarter beasts hear whispers on the wind and gather to free their new king.

The only hope for this land is a young party of new heroes who will take arms against the mounting threat and dive deep into the depths of the sinister dungeon. Who knows what waits for them within the place built to keep evil in and intruders out?

A bit of a lengthy description, but with this single example we’ve set up what could be an entire campaign. It definitely has some Legend of Zelda vibes to it, but the core concept is the same as all literal dungeons: it is still just a place to keep a prisoner.

The Main Hook for Dungeon Delving

Why should your players dive into literal dungeons? There’s a lot of reasons, but the simplest explanation is that something has gone wrong. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Someone is imprisoned that shouldn’t be, so the party goes to free them.
  • Someone is imprisoned that should be and they might escape, so the party goes to stop them.
  • Someone is imprisoned and they’ve got a secret the party needs to find out.
  • Many people are imprisoned and they shouldn’t be.
  • Many people were imprisoned and now they’re not. The dungeon is now their fortress.
  • The party is imprisoned and they need to escape.
  • The party needs to get imprisoned for heist reasons.

These are all classic hooks for proper dungeon design and give your players very clear reasons to be in a dungeon as well as objectives to act on. Sometimes simple is best when it comes to setting objectives, but you can always get more complicated. Let’s look at a non-humanoid dungeon with a more complex goal.

On a continent, smack in the center, a spire stretches up into the sky. This amazing tower has a single massive door on the outside, but the interior stairs lead down instead of up. Just as mysterious as the tower, the dungeon below is full of beasts, monsters, and otherworldly horrors that need to be kept in check. The first person to explore the dungeon discovered its purpose: a jail for these horrible creatures.

Now adventures from all around come to delve into the dungeon and fight back the beasts that always seek to push ever further towards the surface and escape to the world above. They would wreak havoc if left unchecked.

This premise is a bit more convoluted. The spire is needlessly grandiose and the reasoning for it unclear, but the principle idea is the same. The dungeon is built to contain monsters and the players need to keep them from escaping. You could make the monster parts valuable or have the kingdom offer a reward. But no matter what motivates your players, the idea still comes down to a singular focus.

Dungeon Layout and Design

As true in biology as it is in dungeon design, form determines function.

A dungeon designed to hold powerful mages would have a lot of anti-magic traps and locks that cannot be opened through magical means.

A dungeon designed to hold less intelligent beasts might be more confusing in its layout to keep the creatures from easily wandering out if they escape.

A dungeon designed to house an ancient evil would have a ton of security, being just as focused on keeping things out as it does to keep things in.

What it all boils down to is the idea that once you know what the dungeon is for, the design follows suit. In the dumbest fashion, this could be exemplified in the human-made jail for gnomes: all the door handles and locks are up real high.

When you’re following this principle to design your dungeons layout you should be cognizant of the complexity of a dungeon. There are usually multiple layers of defenses to keep things in. An individual might be housed in a cell, but that cell is locked in a block of cells. The cells are further underground, and the shortest path from cell to exit is still a long, winding path with multiple guard stations and locked doors along the way.

Mapping a Dungeon

Dungeon maps are important, usually because part of the thing that makes them intimidating is their sprawling nature. A classic trope in TTRPGs is the mega dungeon. These dungeons are huge constructions that often take players whole campaigns to explore. Building something like this hard, but it reflects the principle of dungeons very well in that it is so massive and overwhelming it would be hard to escape.

When constructing your maps for dungeons there are few recommendations that can make them more dungeon-esqe. 

First, there should be no central staircase. The path that someone takes through the dungeon is by necessity as long as humanly possible. There can be shortcuts, but these should be secret passages made for the individuals tasked with bringing in prisoners or resetting traps. Usually what this means is that the path to the next floor is placed in a way that it takes the most time to get to, but does not always need to be the furthest away from the first staircase.

An example would be in the instance that a staircase is right next to the other, but separated by a wall with a secret door. If you don’t know about the door, you’re force to walk a long, u-shaped path to get to it. A guard bringing in a prisoner, on the other hand, would know about the secret door and can take a much shorter path to the next set of stairs down.

Next, rooms in a dungeon are still functional. It is not uncommon to find things like storerooms, kitchens, bunks, and armories in a dungeon that has active jailers working in it. Even if those jailers are monstrous in nature, they will likely have some sort of amenities for themselves and a basic way to keep their prisoners alive.

If the construction does not have active jailers, the rooms are likely designed to house monsters, traps, or other deterrents from escape. These would be more fitting for a dungeon designed to house an immortal.

Lastly, dungeons are thematic, so a good dungeon map for a game will have repetition in its design principles. This is not to say rooms will repeat, but if the dungeon is designed with service corridors, they should be present in most cases.

If a certain layout is used for hallways, that layout would be repeated by the architect. An example of this might be long, narrow corridors to force prisoners to always be in line of sight if escaping. Or, the opposite: winding corridors that blind prisoners to what’s around the next corner.

In either case, when you figure out the reason for a particular layout decision, assume the decision is made once and used repeatedly. It makes the dungeon more manageable for your players to reason through when playing.

Drab by Design

Another thing to remember about dungeons is that when they are built they are functional places with few frills. They are not often ornate or elaborate. The fanciest dungeon would be the one designed to psychologically torture prisoners: all the comforts they desire can be seen, but are just out of reach.

While this is not always the base aesthetic, it can reduce your mental load when you’re designing one to assume most areas are pretty lackluster.

Don’t Forget, You’re Here Forever

When building a dungeon, don’t forget that prisoners in dungeons are never meant to escape. While modern prisons are (or should be) about reform and release, a dungeon is a place to put someone and forget about them.

We’ve been pretty casual about using dungeons and prisons synonymously, but the key difference is their permanence. You place prisoners in the dungeon with the full understanding that they will never see the light of day again.

Torture is on the Table

Personally, we don’t often like using torture in our games as it’s usually a little too grizzly and wholly unnecessary for the experience. Be sure to check in with your players before you implement any elements of torture.

However, in a dungeon proper, torture could easily be expected. Imagine a dungeon run by fiendish jailers. A good portion of the lower levels could easily be devoted to torture of the prisoners. I won’t go into all the details for something like this, but I think if your group is okay with these themes, this would be the setting where they make the most sense.

Dungeon Mechanics

Dungeons do two things better than any other DnD location: Keys and Traps. We’ve talked extensively about keys and key items in other articles, but here’s a quick recap of the important parts.

Keys in a dungeon allow you access to different sections, but are not always reusable. A cell key might work on all the cells in a block, but likely it doesn’t open the next door along the way. Dungeons are great places to use keys and key-like items to close off sections because it makes sense that everything would be locked. The whole point is that the place is under lock and key.

Traps, while useful in many environments, are best used in dungeons to keep prisoners in and interlopers out. Traps are easy to add here because they make sense in the context of the dungeon. A dungeon is where traps are designed to be.

The interesting thing about traps as a dungeon mechanic is that they’re the automatic guards of any prison. They encourage prisoners to think twice before escaping and they warn intruders that it’s a dangerous place to head. Places close to dangerous prisoners might lack guards entirely but be full to the brim with traps.

Less severe dungeons that have a frequent influx of prisoners will almost always have a way to bypass their traps. You can’t put someone in prison if you can’t get to the prison. While it might be an interesting concept, no guard would take a prisoner into a prison they cannot get out of themselves.

Because of this feature most dungeons turn into a sort of puzzle all on their own. They are very dangerous, but if you know how they work you can bypass the danger and reach your goal. The hard part is figuring out how they actually work in the first place.

Don’t be Afraid to Get Creative

While we’ve mostly talked about dungeons from a very traditional sense, you can get very creative with these and we encourage you to do so. Instead of a dungeon that has a typical layout, you might instead build one that is a collection of very tall spires where prisoners are housed on the top, exposed to the elements.

A party would need to climb an insanely tall and narrow set of floors just to get up and hope the prisoner was still on top without having fallen to their death in a gust of wind.

Another example would be a dungeon created by bards. All the traps are musically themed and the keys are all auditory and note based. This is still a dungeon, but the level of creative music elements you can play with is insanely high.

We haven’t even gotten into elemental themed dungeons yet. Water temple anyone? The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Real Dungeons Are Worth a Try

If you’ve never built or run a real dungeon in DnD we highly recommend it. Dungeons that are built on the principle of being actual dungeons can range in scope from the small castle jails to final resting places of ancient evils long forgotten.

No matter how you decide to build a dungeon for your campaign you’ll have ample opportunities to flex your design muscles. So long as you remember the key principle of dungeons is that it’s a place that contains a prisoner, you’ll find yourself building fantastic settings by focusing on a narrow and refined functionality.

Give a literal dungeon a try in your next game and let us know what you create. We’re always excited to hear about how you’ve used the tips and resources we’ve provided.

Happy DMing!

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