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My players are getting awfully close to entering a multi-story pagoda dungeon that exists in my game. I think it'll be a fun adventure, but I find that I am worried about trying to map it all out for them.

I've always needed to draw out the dungeon as they've explored so as to preserve the mystery, using a dry-erase grid and some markers. I also usually sketch out the maps in advance in a notebook. However, I doubt that will work too well with a large temple with multiple interconnected floors.

My main concern is verticality. I want the players to be able to go up and down (via staircases, ladders, and trap doors etc.) (potentially even split the party) without needing to erase and redraw entire level maps.

Has anyone else run into this issue and knows of any good techniques or resources to handle a much more 3-dimensional map than D&D is really designed for?

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    \$\begingroup\$ What exactly are the problems you anticipate? Not only has D&D been doing multi-level dungeons from day 1, early-era games included "trick" level changes frequently enough that one of dwarves' original racial abilities was the ability to detect gently-sloping passages, so that the players would have a chance of recognizing that a long, straight hallway was gradually taking them to a deeper level of the dungeon. Side-view dungeon layout maps were also common back then, both in published modules and for home-made dungeons. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sherohman Jul 3 at 10:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Why don't you make the players do the mapping from your descriptions? I only draw that part of the map which they can see and erase parts as soon as they go out of sight. If the players want a full map they can do it themselves. \$\endgroup\$ – jcm Jul 4 at 3:24
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Use a Ring Binder and Poly wallets

I once ran a similar scenario, but mine was a dungeon that went down a whole lot with plenty of sub-levels.

For this, you will need two ring binders, a whole bunch of poly wallets, some paper, a pencil, some tape/glue/adhesive and some scissors. Optional extra is some tracing paper.

  1. Draw each discrete room/explorable area separately on paper and cut them out. Make sure they are all to scale with each other, and when fitted together will fit within a poly wallet's surface area

  2. Stick each room in/on a poly wallet, so that when you layer them on top of each other, a full level is formed like a jigsaw

  3. Optionally, add a layer of tracing paper between floors to show the difference in height/depth

  4. Stick them all in your ring binder

  5. As your party explores the dungeon/temple/whatever, take the new room from your binder and place it in the correct position of the party's binder. Thus they will slowly uncover more of the dungeon and be able to see how it all fits together as they go. Because each room is fixed in place, this will let your players flick through the binder and guess where certain stairs will lead, identify gaps for secret rooms, etc.

Note: Unless your dungeon is very tall and thin, this map will not be suitable for miniature combat, but that's when you break out the dry-erase grid and sketch the relevant area.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's pretty heavy in preparation work, but I bet it looks amazing when complete \$\endgroup\$ – Pierre Cathé Jul 2 at 12:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ For sure. I wish I still had pictures \$\endgroup\$ – Kyyshak Jul 2 at 12:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Brilliant. I wasn't quite sure what a poly wallet was, but had a guess. I was thinking those TCG binder sleeves, but it was close enough to generate an approximately correct image in my head (and you could label the backs with a coordinate system for ease of insertion). Speaking of, there's a few card games that utilize the transparency effect as a mechanic (namely Gloom, but there are others). \$\endgroup\$ – Draco18s Jul 2 at 20:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would assume that enough layers to have one per room would make the lower ones very blurry, even with clear plastic. Am I not picturing it correctly, or is that just a problem that the players should deal with? \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Jul 2 at 21:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Bobson: That depends on how many rooms you have per floor. Mine only had a few, so the blur effect was actually beneficial as it implied a depth difference between floors \$\endgroup\$ – Kyyshak Jul 2 at 22:47
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Draw the map in isometric.

Usually isometric maps are just for fun, but where they truly shine is for maps with a lot of verticality. It takes some time getting used to drawing them, but it's not that complicated once you get the hang of it; drawing simple maps shouldn't be too much trouble.

If you're looking for professional maps for inspiration, Elven Tower has some great examples of isometric maps at https://www.elventower.com/isometric-maps. In particular check out these two examples, one of a low-density dungeon and one of a high-density building:

sparse vertical map dense vertical map

Some tips:

  • There's dedicated isometric grid paper, but you can honestly use your square grid dry-erase board. I find 2:1 horizontal:vertical ratio works well, since it's easy to gauge half-squares without marks; 3:1 can also work. The flatter it is the harder it is to understand the layout of a given floor, but the easier it becomes when you lay out vertical things above each other.
  • Isometric helps you understand the height relations by drawing stairs, ladders etc. Isometric also has the huge advantage of allowing you to actually draw whatever other thing as jutting out - not just elevation changes - but don't overuse that, because those do then obscure whatever is behind them.
  • Note that you might have to exaggerate the elevation in order to prevent upper floors from obscuring lower floors. Here's a beautiful example of a New-York subway station layout from Project Subway NYC:
    subway station layout

    The stairs in the actual station are not that steep, but drawing them so steep allows for a lot of margin between the levels, preventing them from obscuring each other.

  • Use vertical dashed lines when the "over" relation is unclear. Compare these two to see what I mean (and yes there's a mistake here):
    isometric map without vertical lines isometric map with vertical lines
  • And lastly, for prep aid, consider using the wonderful desktop application Hobbyte Dungeon Builder, which is what I used to generate the last two images. It's not cheap so might not be the best investment for a one-of, but it can certainly help with your prep if you have a lot of maps to design.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Isometric maps are also included in the 5e published adventure Curse of Strahd (only for the Ravenloft castle) \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Jul 3 at 10:47
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Using the dry erase grid, and having a player draw on a squared paper as well will be fine.

You will mainly need the grid for combat/traps, and navigation can be done with a smaller paper with little to no questions.

Just make sure to inform your players that they need to do this, then everything should be fine.

I make sure to mark any level changes with stairs, and clearly label where they go on my map, and when the players go down we start drawing from there (removing the old map, it does give you more mapping once going up, but if needed you can then delegate that job to a player).
(essentially mapping out from where the players are, as they explore it)

(It's what I do as well, in the same situation)

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I DM a campain with an arc set in a ruined fortress in which the PCs first fought and defeated the invading orc horde and then discovered and explored the dungeon below.

We use Roll20 both in person and remotely as an electronic grid. In person we've played where everyone brought a computer and also where we just had one map displayed on a big screen. 

Often we just sketch out a scene on the Roll20 grid, but I have drawn numerous outdoor and indoor maps.

The dynamic lighting and fog of war features in Roll20 allow me to expose only part of the map at a time.

For the arc taking place in the ruined fortress I drew floor plans and elevation drawings in Inkscape, then imported them into Roll20.  The setting is quite 3D, with multiple buildings and towers in the fort with multiple levels and with multiple levels to the dungeon underneath.

We use the floor plans as Roll20 maps with occasional reference to the elevation drawings.

The combination of Inkscape and Roll20 works fairly well.  Both have a bit of a learning curve.  It can be annoying to get the maps right in Inkscape and it is time consuming.  Roll20 can be quirky as well, and it takes time to learn how even the basic to mid-range features work.

Inkscape allows me to use layers while I'm drawing so if i want I can see various levels of the dungeon so that I can get things lined up correctly.

I export the layers as separate pngs for import into Roll20.  In Roll20 they're separate maps.  When moving from one level to another we just move the PC icons from one map to another.

I also occasionally draw a separate graphic image as an overlay on a map, so that an area can look one way one time and another way another time without having to make a whole new map.

All and all, it works well, although it is not without some quirks and tediousness.

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One thing you could do to keep it simple, would be to make multiple copies of the map.

Then cut the map as the party would have mapped it as they explored it.

This will provide the visual and save the time of explaining to them how to draw it.

It will add to the game, give them a new found appreciation for a more complex dungeon map and allow you to achieve the experience you are looking for.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you done this before? I have, using butcher paper, and it worked out fine. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 5 at 23:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Oct 6 at 1:53

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