Sunday, July 2, 2017

Retropost Sunday: Dungeon Types

Some kinds of dungeons I'm interested in:

The Lesser Crazy-Wizard (or Funhouse) Dungeon

So this guy (often a wizard, though it can be a demi-lich or an innkeeper or just some jerk) threw a place together for largely the purpose of fucking with people. Full of puzzles. Un-full of internal logic. Room follows upon room for no particular normal-architectural-function-serving reason. Egregious genre violations are likely but not essential. (The Crazy Wizard being the traditional catch-all excuse for all D&D genre-violations). The worst parts usually have stupid puns, old jokes and references to showtunes in them but these, likewise, are not essential.

A slightly more "sane" rationale for a puzzle dungeon like this can be: "Evil force treating the PCs like test subjects in order to plan future attack on humans/earthlings/surface-dwellers/air-breathers/two-legged-ones etc."

Either way, this sort of dungeon is among the easiest to write. (Though the hardest to master.) Perhaps the best thing about puzzle dungeons is it's very easy to pull individual rooms, gimmicks, or traps out of them and stick them into other puzzle dungeons. So if your players miss a bit of it, you can stick one onto the next lunatic mage tower.

It's kind of pointless to buy a published one of these and just keep the structure and re-skin all the details, because all the designer's work generally went into the details, not the structure.

The Greater Crazy-Wizard Dungeon

This resembles the Lesser Crazy Wizard Dungeon only there is a structure and that structure is as crazy as the details.

That is--some over-arching meta-puzzle or meta-challenge profoundly affects everything you try to do in the dungeon. The rooms all spin independently of each other so it's a mapping challenge or you can only see what's in a room if you enter from the proper direction or you have to kill everything in the blue rooms but not everything in the red rooms. These can be awesome if done right but are highly taste sensitive--if the gimmick doesn't fit what you or your PCs want to do, the whole thing's pretty much useless.

Working Palace

This is any kind of big residence of some people/monsters/entities that are alive and active in the world and have built a big place to hang out in. The logistics and aesthetics of the place tend to match whatever race inhabits it.

These dungeons put the most pressure on the DM to actually make some sense. (DM's are free to ignore this pressure, but whatever, anyway...) Locked doors have keys, the inhabitants have bedrooms or other quarters, and there should probably be whatever things a big residence is supposed to have just in order to function normally as a residence like, say, a kitchen.

All this, PLUS the fact that it should still be fun, PLUS you need a way for the PCs to get in there without immediately being killed by guards, PLUS trying to give it enough monster/NPC variety so that, say The Palace of the Lizard Prince isn't just endless fights with Lizard Man Guards makes this the hardest kind of dungeon to write. Plus it's really hard to buy a published adventure of this kind and re-skin it because if the featured monster/NPC race doesn't particularly fit what you're trying to do, then a lot of the other elements might not fit either. Like, sure the Red Dragonmen have a magma bath but if I want to re-skin it as a Kenku palace then you've got to re-write the bath, too, which sucks because the magma bath was kind of cool...

It is usually easier to write by making the monarch insane, therefore giving excuses for making parts of it into a Puzzle Dungeon.

I have yet to see a good, published Pure Working Palace dungeon. Yes, that's a challenge.

One-Shot Funnel Dungeon

This dungeon can be gotten through in a session or two and never lets you forget the main objective. You know "Den of the Moldy Ogre Who Is Like Ten Feet Away" or whatever. There's a big bad or quest item or major gimmick in there and the rest is just roadbumps and the PCs generally know it. These are useful to have around but a good DM can write one in his sleep.

(A subgenre of this is the Strongly Implied Plot One-Shot Dungeon, where the PCs not only are moving toward some simple goal, but have few enough options that they have a decent chance of tripping certain predictable plot events on the way. This doesn't have to be a railroad.)

When you buy one, you tend to go "I could've written that in my sleep", unless it has some really clever stuff in there which allows the PCs to "use" the place in more than one way.

When you buy a full-length adventure that turns out to be just one of these stretched out to ridiculous proportions--say, not just Dragon + A Handful Of Sucksmear Kobolds And Not Much Else, but, say Dragon + Several Thousand Sucksmear Kobolds And Not Much Else, then it can make you want to not buy a published adventure ever again.

Re-Purposed Forgotten PlaceThere once was a mighty empire, then it sucked and died and now blobs and tribes of ratmen crawl around their Once Mighty halls. Relatively easy to write because if you don't want to write in the Once Mighty Kitchen or Once Mighty Horseshoe-Making Room then you can just say there was a cave-in or it's been emptied out or lost to the mists of time or whatever. However, they're more fun when you write in some politics among the new inhabitants--like the ratmen hate the blobmen who are servants of the cheesemen who are imprisoned by the Elephant Pig who worships the Demon Pheasant who possesses the Fairy Cow. If they bump around long enough, the PCs can do a pretty good job of unwittingly stitching together their own plot.

(This is a good place for Schrodinger's motive--i.e. there's several mcguffins and several mcguffin-wanting NPCs/intelligent monsters, but which of them wants which mcguffin is left in the air 'til the PCs actually show up. Whatever the NPC/critter wants inevitably forces the PCs to go to some part of the dungeon they haven't been in yet or go to some place they have been and try harder.)

It also allows you to throw in bits of Crazy Wizard Logic but you don't have to carry them out to their conclusion because maybe part of it has Fallen Into Ruin. So like this room fills with water if you try to cast a spell in it but the next one just has some orcs and a pine cone.

Also, this kind is really easy and fun to re-skin if there's some politics since you can just change the factions around and pin any uncongruous element on the long-dead "architect" culture. Like I pointed out yesterday while re-skinning Tomb of The Bull King.

The Dungeon Where Something Just Happened
This dungeon can be any of the other kinds of dungeons, but then some large and transformative event just occurred--invasion from without, meteorite strike, experiment-gone-awry. An important function of this change is to create an easy in-game reason why a horde of supposedly powerful, intelligent, dungeon-dwelling beings can't keep 3-12 adventurers of levels 1-3 from just waddling up to their front door and stealing all their stuff.

Once you come up with a good event, this kind of dungeon writes itself. Plus it provides an instant in-game excuse for rooms to radically change if things get boring. The only problem is it can get in the way of the default "delve/loot/rest at inn/delve/loot/rest at inn" default-OD&D type adventurer-whim-centric dungeoneering schedule. Things in this kind of dungeon have to have a little bit of a life of their own.

The Place That Wasn't A Dungeon A Second Ago But Now Is

Basically, it's like Alien. It's an ordinary (to the PCs) place and something bad just got loose and so now every corridor is infused with primal terror and whatnot. Generally I kind of hate this kind of dungeon because it's hard to make the environment "come alive" for an extended period of time (In a game, I mean, not in a movie. I like Alien just fine--I'm not a psycho) and, to me, D&D is as much about the place itself as the things in it. I've yet to see a really good one. However, it is closely related to...

The Dungeon that Used To Be That But Now Is This

This place was, long ago, something interesting but benign, like a zoo. Then it became horrible. Some malevolent and probably supernatural thing has evilified every inch of it. Like the Greater Crazy Wizard Dungeon, it's all about the premise. Unless you like that, a published one is probably going to be kind of useless.

The Dungeon of Beings Who Are Completely Weird

Unlike the Crazy Wizard/Puzzle dungeon, the entities in charge here are not necessarily hostile or cruel, they just behave or live in such an alien way that it's a big pain in the ass to go around finding stuff in their house. Like the Bath House in Spirited Away or Lewis Carrol's Wonderland. Again: the premise here is everything, and there is a huge possibility of genre-dissonance. If you don't like the premise then you won't like the dungeon because the premise affects everything about it.

Obviously there are other kinds of dungeons--and most dungeons have elements of more than one "species".

Anyway, can anybody think of excellent examples of dungeons that fit one of these bills (aside from the usual suspects--like we already know about White Plume Mountain)? Are there types of dungeon you like that I've left out?

(Not "types" in terms of what specfically is in the dungeon, but in the sense of the structure of the dungeon.)


  1. My variant on the funhouse is the Allegorical Quest, where PCs are sent on a Pilgrim's Progress through a fantastic landscape by a god or someone similar.


  3. Hmmm I feel like the Big Vehicle is its own thing, but maybe it's not. And as far as Working Palace goes, I tend to like the Working Psychiatric Asylum subspecies, and my favourite one of those is the one in that game kill puppies for satan. --Roger

  4. The one type of dungeon that I can think of which doesn't fit any of these categories is the "Toxic Waste Dump", which is basically a place that was always bad and where people put their bad stuff from the beginning. The classic example of this is ancient tombs - unless you would classify them as "that and now this" dungeons? Basically, unlike the typical "that and now this" dungeon a "toxic waste" dungeon would have a lot more in the way of barriers, means to try to keep the evil in, and so on. I'm thinking of Where The Fallen Jarls Sleep as a good example of this type of dungeon - maybe Barrowmaze as well, though I like the map in Barrowmaze way better than I like the actual content.

    1. I think the idea that the dungeon is designed to keep something in is definitely a meaningful structural difference--and that is an interesting kind of dungeon

      Good job!

  5. One dungeon type I've wanted to run for a long time is a difficult dungeon that just got cleaned out by a high level party and now the 1st level PCs show up to pick it over for scraps.

    1. hah! I have been wanting to use that idea for a campaign setting for a while - basically, the Fellowship of the Ring just killed Sauron; go hurry into Mordor and clean out all of Sauron's gold while the Orcs are all distracted.