raging_swan (raging_swan) wrote,

GM Advice: Designing Dungeon Ecology

Designing a dungeon badly is a doddle – just sketch some rooms out and randomly stock them with monsters and treasure. Taking a little extra time to consider the basics, though, is time well spent.


(Art: William McAusland [Outland Arts])

I've previously talked about the big picture when it comes to dungeon design. Just as important, though, as questions about who built the dungeon and why are more mundane details. The devil is in the detail, after all. Ignoring the basic characteristics of a dungeon and its inhabitants can shatter the players' suspension of disbelief.

The Ultimate in Bad Design

It's Magic! This is the ultimate rationale for lazy design. "It's magic" can sweep away almost any logical inconsistency. All it says to me as a publisher, though, is that either the freelancer doesn't care about creating a plausible dungeon or he doesn't know he's failed horribly. (Of course, some extra-planar dungeons or the lair of a powerful wizard could prove the exception to this rule, but such examples are few and far between).

The Basics

  • Food & Water: Of course, some dungeon denizens – elementals and undead to name but two – normally don't need to eat or drink. Most others, however, require sustenance to survive. If the means to acquire food and drink do not exist in the dungeon they must be acquired elsewhere (preferably from somewhere close by).

  • Access: Pretty much every denizen of the dungeon needs to move about. Creatures need to gather food and water, at the most basic level. They may also trade or work with their neighbours, creep forth to raid the surface lands and so on. To do this they need to have access to a means of entering and exiting the dungeon. The classic example of this done badly is the monster living in a room that is only accessed through the lair of another. Sure, the two might be allied, but would you really live in a place in which you were totally beholden to your neighbour for everything?

  • Conflict & Alliances: It is very unlikely the denizens of a dungeon exist in a bubble of isolation, not interacting with each other. As in any community, alliances, rivalries and conflicts will be present among the dungeon denizens. Clever explorers can learn of these and exploit them to their advantage.

  • Why Are They There? Consider why the denizens are actually living in the dungeon. Have the chosen to be there? Are they trapped? Are they here because they are searching for something? Shocking, most monsters don’t just hang around in a room and wait to be slaughtered by rampaging adventurers.

  • Light: While most won't, some dungeon denizens need light. If they do need it, they must have a means of providing light practically continually.

Do you consider other factors when designing a dungeon’s ecology? Why not share them in the comments below? And remember you can download this – and every other advice article – for free at ragingswan.com/articles.

Tags: articles, gm advice, raging swan press

  • Player Advice: How to Design Your PC’s Background

    A PC is so much more than a set of stats and some equipment. A decent background is a fundamental part of any well developed character... (Art:…

  • Weeknote 26/5

    It’s going to a short week this week! We’ve just had a public holiday here in the UK and for the next four days global HQ will be…

  • Player Advice: Looming Disaster

    TPKs rarely just happen. Normally, the party gets at least several rounds warning going things go horribly wrong. What should they do? (Art:…

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.