Thursday, April 8, 2010

How to draw dungeons, density and linearity

Taking a look at the very intriguing post by Lord Kilgore at his blog, I was thinking on my latest attempts at drawing dungeons.

I have been drawing while planning, meticulously thinking of how things fit, designing choke points and god knows what. Surprisingly often I feel dissatisfied with the result and never finish them. Very often I draw like crazy and suddenly realize I have made one long corridor with rooms or twists along the line, i.e. a very linear adventure.

So, how much space does people actually have in their dungeons? I have found that if I start by drawing rooms and then try to connect them with corridors, or if I just tries to cram oddities in every open space on the paper I get very different dungeons. I still haven't found a good balance of spontaneity and planning yet. Lord Kilgore's post made me think of that again.

What works? What effect does the "dense" dungeon have in play, and how easy is it to "make sense" of a dungeon like that? Imagine a dungeon like, say, Stonehell, where different dungeon levels have different creatures which live in different sections. Can you make that work in a "dense" dungeon? I find some people draw like that naturally, and I wonder why. Maybe I have something to learn. It looks interesting.

The thing with dense dungeons is that I wonder if it's really that fun to play in such a twisted environment. Mapping it must be quite a challenge, and I wonder how many players are that into mapping.

One of these days I have to just try it out, I guess.


  1. On the subject of mapping, I wonder how many GMs make their players draw the map. I add rooms and corridors to the player's map as the characters explore. Left to their own devices the players would either continually get lost, get bored and quit. Or... Get bored and quit at the thought of drawing a map instead of role-playing.

  2. I have made my players draw the map themselves lately, since it should be part of the fun of exploring. But, some guys seem to hate mapping. Personally I think it's fun, but rarely get the chance.

    I don't know if I'd think it fun in all kinds of dungeons, though, which was part of my train of thought above.

  3. I think the right answer is: variety. I've done super-dense, huge complexes with twisty corridors packed with rooms, and sparse layouts with little distraction from the locale's central purpose. Over the years I think I've trended toward more purposeful layouts, though the purpose may well be confuse the heck out of the party. :)

  4. On Design: I like to decide where I want my inhabited areas, and my special weird areas. The inhabited zones tend to be clusters of smaller rooms and maybe a big one. The weird zones are generally one or 2-3 rooms, and can be a mix of any sizes. Then I connect these with corridors and empty rooms, and then occasionally rearrange those to add interest or change the flow.

    You want a bunch of empty spaces to provide breaks between the action, you want "feeding sites" like vegetation or pools full of fish or something, and you want occasional cool things that don't do anything (a statue, or some carvings, or a mosaic, or whatever).

    On Mapping: I tend to map lazily, with 1 square = 20' and lines connecting rooms to represent passageways. This lets me get the map down quickly, but I need to develop the specifics on the fly during the game. I draw a mini-map on the wet-erase mat as we go, and the party mapper copies that down, but it's rough. If we go into a battle or I otherwise need to draw something in more detail I use the rest of the mat for that, and erase if I need to draw another location.

  5. Over the years I think I've trended toward more purposeful layouts, though the purpose may well be confuse the heck out of the party

    Good point!

    I have some ideas for dungeon purposes lying about, but still haven't figured out how to translate that purpose onto paper yet. Purpose is interesting, though.

  6. 1d30,

    I imagine I think like you, but I have trouble to connect those areas in any interesting way. Way to often it becomes a linear track.

    Maybe having areas in detail and the "transitional areas" in between as just lines might be a way for me to get past that stumbling block. Hmm.

  7. This is a strange way of thinking to me; when I design a structure I generally think "What was it built for?" and make the design accordingly, almost always using real world references. I generally don't game in worlds with structures designed purposefully to challenge/kill adventurers! :)

    The closest I got to a "dungeon" was in a campaign set in a bronze-age city, where there were vast catacombs beneath the city that started as quarries and later became burial grounds. I used maps of the Rome catacombs as the basis for these, and they looked great - I also found a lot of cool inspiration for rooms.

    Other than that it's been mostly buildings, (ruined and occupied) and natural caverns. There's some pretty amazing stuff out there. There's a great "dungeon" in, I think, Shadows on the Borderland for RuneQuest that was based on a real set of caverns.

    You should put some of your dungeon design efforts on this blog. I'd like to see them :)

  8. I have found that for me the dungeon is mostly a way to structure and pace the adventure. If I start to think too much about intentions and "what was it used for" I degenerate into a morass of simulationism and nothing fun comes from it.

    There are cool real world pieces og inspiration that I wish I could use without to be caught in my hangups about it "being real".

    I have thought of putting some things up. Maybe it's time.

  9. There's a History Channel series called "Cities of the Underworld" that explores the subterranean aspects of modern cities. Some of the shows are mediocre at best, but the episodes that feature ancient city sites (like Rome) will really give you some inspiration for underground spaces and how they connect.

  10. Interesting; I don't think I believe that pacing has anything to do with the in-game world - it's a function of the interaction between the players (in which I include the GM). The adventure moves as fast as we want it to; I don't see why we should be constrained by a map.

    I'm not at all sure by what mechanism play would "degenerate into a mass of simulationism". Could you elaborate on that?

  11. Cool tip about History Channel. Personally, I don't own a tv set, but those who do, check it out.

  12. daftnewt,

    I have some ideas on pacing and simulationism. I'll dedicate a post to that.


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