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I'm kind of a new GM, and I haven't done much dungeon design. Specifically, I'm creating an ancient tomb of a powerful necromancer built underneath a tower that was lost in a swamp centuries ago. Any pointers would be appreciated. I'm very new to this part of the game, so I have very little idea what I'm doing. I know I want it to be trap-heavy and that it shouldn't take more than one 4 hour play session if that's possible. I'm using the 3.5e D&D system. Mostly what I want to know is how to invent a cool dungeon that plays smoothly and still makes sense. I'm looking for a somewhat tense, mildly creepy atmosphere for the entire dungeon. Any ideas on how to establish that with the design? Also, any advice on how to keep the maps I use organized would be great. I know this question is pretty vague, but any tips from more experienced GM's would be awesome.

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closed as not a real question by SevenSidedDie, Simon Withers, wax eagle, mxyzplk Aug 28 '12 at 2:45

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

You're asking for general advice (tips, something which almost by definition has no right answer), and some rather varied, slightly more specific help as well (maps and mood). I think you would be well served asking a few, more focused questions, rather than one omnibus question –  Simon Withers Aug 27 '12 at 21:56
The edited question is better, thanks! Someone want to craft an answer based on the 5-room dungeon technique? I would but I'm about to be away from the computer or frequently interrupted for a while, and a good answer needs more than a link to the idea but also some guidance on ways to use it in line with "mildly creepy". –  SevenSidedDie Aug 27 '12 at 23:07
Hey man. I respect what you're trying to get at here, but you need to break this down into more discrete and answerable questions - this is a big mass that's just going to pull random answers. "How do I organize maps," "How do I impart a tense, mildly creepy atmosphere to a dungeon," etc. are more scoped. Please read our FAQ, we deal in questions and answers, if a question's answers boil down to "ramble on at random about your theory of DMing" they're not on topic. –  mxyzplk Aug 28 '12 at 2:47
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2 Answers 2

I think the most important thing to understand when you draw your own dungeon is: You don't need to be an artist.

A dungeon map is meant for reference to help yourself remember and understand what's about to happen. Create yourself a code of symbols or icons. A big S inside a bold line might indicate a secret passage. Put a letter or a number and put the name in reference somewhere where you have space (maybe on a separate page).

Dungeon icons examples from Wizards of the coast website

Depending on what kind of map you use at the gaming table (square or hex) I suggest you take the same to make your map. Indicate the scale if necessary (some huge dungeons might have a scale of 1 square on paper = 3 squares.

Don't forget to think about the dungeon as a structure. Super large room will need columns to support the roof or maybe really large arcs. If the room is underground, the structure need to support tons of rock and dirt (even water). Corridors have a purpose. Linking rooms together, yes. But why the rooms would be separated in the first place? Corridors are awesome for traps (insert evil laugh here). If a corridor is narrow enough and a boulder is coming at you, it's way harder to avoid.

Simple features can be drawn directly on the map (such as a dead body) but if the room is filled with skulls, just put a note saying : Skull carpet.

Just remember that a map is basically tons of information condensed into more eye-friendly info (than 54 pages of descriptions). Use the map at your game as an easy reference guide.

If you intend to give the player a map that they can find or something, I really like to use Photoshop or Illustrator and split my things among different layers so one layer contains the raw lines defining the rooms and some layers for the notes etc. If I want to print a "player version" of the map, I don't have to draw another one. But good old paper is awesome..and looks more mysterious at the gaming table.

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So I actually don't draw the map until the game. I found that when I drew the map in advance I spent a lot of time copying it for the players to see. I had to get it exactly right and any mistakes were slow to erase.

This seemed backwards to me because the placement of corridors and whatnot was arbitrary when I planned them. There was no actual reason to go with the map as planned. So I improvised the layout.

During prep time what I did was make a list of things to include. My list would look something like this:

  • goblin fight
  • orc fight
  • boss fight
  • chasm
  • acid pit trap
  • collapsed mine shaft


While running the game I draw meandering corridors and pick items off my list. The dungeons play just like a fully prepped dungeon, but with less drawing time.

(side note: this method may not work for you. Maps are more important to other GMs than they are to me. One of the things you learn as you GM is that there are parts of the game you can improvise and parts you have to prep. I improvise dungeon layouts. )

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