Making Dungeons Great

Sep 24, 2021 7:09 pm
I think a lot of us have noticed over a while of playing PbP that dungeons are generally not exciting like they might be at a real table. I wanted to start this thread to discuss how to make dungeons more exciting to play in a PbP environment.

Once we're done, I'll take the suggestions and turn them into a sort of PbP guide to help people out.
Sep 24, 2021 8:49 pm
Just brainstorming.

I wonder if some of the difficulty lies in the decision-making process slowing things down? We're used to the ideas of dungeons as being dangerous places full of traps and treasure, almost like the entire facility is a puzzle to be solved. Most dungeon maps I've seen have splitting paths, like White Plume Mountain, and it's easier for people at a table to collectively decide which route to take or the best method for bypassing a trap. Yet in PbP, such decisions can take a week or more depending on the discourse.

Perhaps we need to streamline dungeons into a singular path interspersed with a few obstacles and traps. Monster lairs can just be adjacent areas before the party reaches the final room. Of course, this does take away the exploration and process of discovery, but there may be a way to include that in these kinds of linear journeys.
Sep 24, 2021 9:27 pm
One thing I think is useful in a PbP game when dealing with dungeons is to have an agreement with the players ahead of time as to what their characters will do when entering a new room/section.

Do you always listen at doors? What will you do if a door is locked? When do you search for traps? If I know these types of things ahead of time I'll just make whatever rolls are necessary and keep the game moving.

I've also taken the approach of just skipping non-important areas. Not that the PCs won't visit the area, I just describe the room and tell them that "after a search there's nothing of interest" or "rummaging through the room you find X, Y, and Z". No point having the PCs spend a week and a half (as stated above) of real time rolling to search to see if they find a little coin hidden beneath a table - just give it to them and move on.


Sep 24, 2021 9:31 pm
The OSR setting "Gardens of Ynn" models an exploration into a fey realm, but it doesn't have a map. The world is procedurally generated and players just choose to "go deeper" or "go back." Definitely PbP friendly in that regard. I wonder if a dungeon could work similarly?
Sep 24, 2021 11:43 pm
Here's what I posted at the beginning of my Mummy's Mask Pathfinder gave in a thread called Dungeon Ground Rules
Qralloq says:
The following ground rules for making the dungeon crawl experience move a little more swiftly

1. Assume that a rogue always takes 10 on trapfinding, and if necessary, a secondary rogue can act as backup for finding/disabling (she's also trained in those).

2. Anyone can decide which way to go, and by default we all agree to follow without having to post agreement. If the DM knows there's something that requires a little more discussion, he can slow us down.

3. Enforce a time limit on deciding which way to go before the DM decides for us. 24 to 36 hours without a decision and you'll be moved forward, or randomly if there is a choice.
Sep 25, 2021 12:05 am
1. Traps. Not just the damaging/murdering types. Have interesting traps. Some that split the party, and see your players panic as they try to reach their friends. Sliding walls which makes their maps useless... until they figure out the timing. Have them shrunken to about 1" high and navigate the suddenly gigantic dungeon, a simple set of stairs becomes a real challenge at this height, not to mention small critters the players would not normally have to deal with...

2. Have your dungeon tell a story. What are your monsters doing in that dungeon? Are the monster split up between various factions that fight one another? Have the players find aftermaths of some battle, have some rooms look like no man's land, and have the boundaries of each faction be very well fortified and defended.

3. Interesting treasures. Are you tired of those +1 longswords? Have the party find a war axe which allows the wielder to sacrifice HP in order to inflict more damage, or perhaps a shortspear which can be thrown 15~25' farther?

4. Description. Use all 5 sense, not just what your players see, but what they hear, smell, touch, and in some rare cases taste. No need to go overboard though, so rooms are just empty and are devoid of interest and that's okay, but in locations of interest, do try to use at least 3 different senses when your players first explore the place.
Sep 26, 2021 3:34 am
I'm kind of in agreement with @Cancerman, in that the experience of pbp and being at a table are vastly different with regards to navigating a dungeon. The minutiae of describing size and shapes of rooms, negotiating searching for various things, and so on can really bog a game down in pbp.

While I like the idea of "Go deeper" and "Go back" as Len suggested, I'm not sure that really captures the spirit of incrementally making your way through the kind of subterranean space that many adventures occupy.

For my part, when I'm running a pbp game, I tend to avoid using confined spaces whenever possible. When I do, I prefer to make them small and have specific details that can be discussed, as opposed to describing each and every single room. If I'm sending the players into a tomb, how does big does it really need to be? It is possible to treat the aboveground entrance, and surrounding area, as a sort of extension to the underground component?

I don't know if that helps, but these are the kinds of questions I ask myself when designing my own material.
Oct 28, 2021 10:29 pm
It has taken me WAY too long to get back to this and for that I apologize!

I agree that the decision-making part of the process is the biggest issue in dungeons. One option is definitely to just reduce the choices that have to be made, either by automating them (The group will always go left!) or by just removing the pointless fluff from the dungeon (why spend a week dealing with an empty room that the players search over).

I think that Len makes a good case for pre-deciding the actions that party will take. Don't bother waiting for the wizard to tell you for the fifth time that he's going to detect magic on the room or for the rogue to tell you he's checking for traps. Just do it for them and move on.

The "Gardens of Ynn" approach is definitely one way to do it, but I worry, like CancerMan said, that it takes away from the experience of dungeon-crawling. I think it would probably work find for smaller dungeons, but for a mega dungeon, it might be lacking the exploration experience.
I'll put in more thoughts later on, but this is as far as I got with this sit-down
Oct 29, 2021 5:53 pm
As an addition to this post, I was reading Creighton Broadhurst's Be Awesome at Dungeon Design (Raging Swan Press) this morning, and there's a lot of advice that has nothing to do with the scale of the space.

His suggestions are things like, consider the ecology of the dungeon (who/what lives there or how do the inhabitants get food/water), use wandering monsters/random encounters to keep players on their toes, use the name as a means of describing the interior, as well as setting a theme, the importance of giving the dungeon a purpose (Why was it built? and Who it who built it?) and so on.

It's a pretty readable book, inexpensive, and instructive.


Oct 29, 2021 6:35 pm
Thanks for the book recommendation, Phil.

I think Broadhurst's advice of giving the dungeon theme and purpose is spot on. I'd word it as giving the dungeon a story, a narrative through-line, that you discover as you explore it. It gives you another kind of beat that you can drop - uncovering a clue to the dungeon's mystery can be just as satisfying as solving the traditional trap/puzzle/combat challenges. Everything can reflect the theme, from your random encounter tables to the treasure. And perhaps knowing about the mystery or story of the dungeon can help players navigate factions better, give them insight into a puzzle, tip them off about what magic items are cursed, etc.

I think tying everything in the dungeon to that central story is especially important in pbp where you need that extra pull to help players keep moving forward.

PS - I mentioned Gardens of Ynn only as an example of a different approach, but don't expect it to become a standard.

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