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Foreword: I run a D&D 4e campaign, but I think that this question is overall system-agnostic.

Recently I've somewhat shifted my D&D campagin towards a more traditional dungeon crawling style. However, a problem I've noticed is that when the PCs are exploring a dungeon, they have no way of choosing where to go next except by random chance. For example, if the current room has two exits, they have will have no way to choose which door to go through except by flipping a coin.

I'd like to change this, because I don't want the players to be forced to act at random. I want the players to have enough information that they can make strategic decisions about their movement through the dungeon, but I'm just not sure how to do that.

How can I give my players hints as to what they'll find in different dungeon paths, so that they can make logical decisions about how to explore the dungeon?

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As a GM, the solutions are all about providing more information:

Sounds and Trails

When they examine their choices, give them hints what lies down each passage. A part of the dungeon in use by kobolds looks different from one in which there is a gelatinous cube, and again different from one used by necromancers.

If you tell them at a junction "Down the left corridor, you can find small markings scratched into the walls at waist-height and strange chittering sounds in the distance; in the left corridor you notice how the floor looks unusually clean of debris and dust, and the stairs ahead echo faintly with the sound of people chanting", you turn the meaningless choice of left/right/down into a meaningful one.

Architectural Details

On a weaker level, the same can be done even in the absence of monsters. The path to a crypt is very different than the servants' stairs leading up to the feast hall. Thus, by giving them more explanation of what their choice of paths looks like than just "Corridor left, corridor right, stairs down ahead", you give them something to work with. However, the information "Am I walking into what used to be a crypt or into what used to be a feast hall" can often not be enough to actually give meaning to the choice. This becomes easier when you combine it with the following technique to give that information more impact:

Maps and Rumors

Just because part of the dungeoneering experience is the exploration doesn't mean the characters aren't allowed to have any prior information about the dungeon. In fact, some vague info about points of interest can turn aimless wandering around into a meaningful expedition: The colonial explorers weren't just wandering around south of Egypt for no reason, but because they were looking for the source of the Nile.

By giving them rumors, especially about treasure, like "The 3rd Lord of Castle Strahd is said to have been buried with his entire wealth somewhere in this dungeon", you can give the players something to look for. Now, the choice between heading down into a crypt and up into the feast hall is clearly meaningful: the promise of treasure for heading into the crypt makes if qualitatively different from the feast hall.

Similarly, you can use maps as clues and as part of treasure to pique their interest. If they find a hastily scrawled note about the location of the switch on the statue of Anubis that opens the secret door behind it, the players will start looking for such statues.

The Actions of Enemies

Since an encounter should be more than just a swap into combat mode and whopping at enemies in a blank room, as a GM one should never ignore how the choices of other dungeon denizens are affected by the environment.

For example, if a chamber says "2 Kobolds", and has exits leading to a room with more kobolds, another one with a gelatinous cube and one full of necromancers, then it shouldn't be hard to contextualize that as two kobolds guarding the door to their lair to prevent the cube they just saw slithering by earlier from going down there.

The effect doesn't have to be big, but it gives things impact and information. When the PCs enter the chamber, those two kobolds will probably also be surprised, have to first pick up their shield to get ready, and one might shout down a warning the passage they are standing in front of. None of that greatly changes the gameplay of the ensuing fight, but it is very different in terms of information conveyed than "Two kobolds stand in the middle of the room. Put down your minis here near this door."

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure if you want to add this in, but in the original game Maps were themselves a form of treasure; the use of rumors and maps (or rather, partial maps) was a very common element to kicking off a dungeon crawl. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 28 at 13:16
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Use a dungeon with an interesting map

If the map has several levels, hidden entrances, ways to see into other rooms without easy access, stairways, or simply loops, players can use their map (that they draw or you provide) to deduce where corridors and doors might lead to.

Repeated expeditions

If the dungeon is visited several times, then the navigational choices are no longer arbitrary - the players know roughly what they will find and where.

In order for this to be meaningful, the dungeons has to be large or it has to change, perhaps due to being re-settled, or the context around it has to change. Maybe the players slaughter an orc settlement but fail to find the secret door to their temple and the older complex underneath, only later finding hints about the missed parts. But by then something else has settled in, or some tunnels have been lost due to lack of maintenance, etc.

Scouting, prisoners and interrogation

Scouting and acquiring information is often possible: listen at doors, use magic and talk to the vermin, listen rumours about the place, have someone sneak in before the others and come back when they know what there is to find.

If the players kill everything they meet, they are going in blind. Take prisoners, talk to them, have them show the way.

A logical dungeon

If the dungeon has living and active creatures, they make noise, leave tracks, produce waste, and shape their living environment to fit them. They will also create some sort of ecology, or lack of it, around themselves - vermin, prey and predators. Remember this when describing the locations, and players will naturally be able to deduce things about the dungeon.

If the dungeon was constructed by intelligent, even if bizarre or insane, minds, then it has some kind of basic internal logic. Do not hide this logic actively. If the players figure it out, they can make predictions based on it. This can range from the obvious (frequently travelled routes do not usually have active traps) to the obscure (the cult that built the place had three as their holy number and two as the unlucky one, which is reflected in the placement of trapped doors and treasure chambers).

If the dungeon has a history, then that, too, will be visible there, and players can, with luck and cleverness, figure out and use some of it to navigate.

Most important: Make it matter and tell them it does

Does the game offer strategic depth? If the dungeons are essentially linear, with maybe a few side branches, there no navigational decisions to make in the first place.

The dungeon should also have things they want to find (treasure, other objectives) and things they want to avoid (dangerous monsters, heavily trapped areas). If everything is balanced, then it does not matter where one goes.

If the dungeon is too small, there is little opportunity for navigation.

Related to the last point, if they are going to visit the entire complex anyway, navigation is typicallly not so important. (It can be, if a particular holy sword makes killing a particular vampire a lot easier, or an area is much nicer if approached from a specific direction, and in other specific situations.) There should be places the players will not have time or resources to explore. This can be due to time pressure, several possible smaller dungeons, or a large megadungeon.

After this, you should inform the players of the reasons you have implemented to make navigation meaningful. Maybe they are used to it not mattering and simply have not considered the possibility.

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Investigate the choices

Faced with two doors the choice may seem like random chance, but that is only because we haven't properly investigated the choices. There are several core ideas I use when running dungeons:

  1. Getting the wrong idea is easy: provide a lot of clues
  2. Dungeons and rooms don't exist in a vacuum: allow players to learn from experience
  3. Creatures have minds of their own: don't start combat instantly, don't make them automatically aware

Investigate the door

What do the doors look like? Is the door giant, made of heavy iron, with huge bars locking it closed? Is it a thin flimsy door, worn and falling apart?

What does the door frame look like? Is it solid stone? Has the door been burrowed out of the wall like an afterthought?

What can be seen around the door? Are there tracks leading in, or out? Is there anything discarded near the door? Is the path ornately paved, dirt, rough rock?

How are the doors positioned in the room? Is it centered in the wall? Is there a wide space in front of it where creatures could enter comfortably? Is it hidden in the corner of the room, out of the way?

What can be heard through the door? Is there sounds of distant chatter? Heavy, rhythmic snoring? A mysterious crunching sound?

Now that the players have some hints; "The doorway is small and intersects the room towards the corner, 2 feet off the ground, at a weird angle. Some stray bricks are on the floor around it, and the tunnel beyond looks like raw dirt. The door is clumsily made of wood and has some bone chimes hanging on it, a dirty muddy path leads up to it. From far beyond you can hear some occasional high pitched chattering."

Proceed with caution

They can carefully continue down the tunnel, using sneaky and perceptive party members to check the way ahead. As they continue they can gather more clues, perhaps their initial impression is wrong, the tunnel is getting warm and smells of sulfur. What they thought was a goblin lair may turn out to be a the home of imps and fiends. Time to turn back and check the other door instead? Perhaps the party decide to sneak all the way up to the next room, now they have another door to investigate or a doorway to peer through. They see a giant demon playing poker with a handful of imps, but the fiends are engrossed in their game, so the party back off and find an easier path instead.

The next time the party see the bone chimes, maybe they will think back to the fiends and proceed extra cautiously.

Outside the dungeon

A dungeon can take a long time to crawl. Between delves the party can talk to the local guards, other adventurers, and drunks at the tavern. Gather information about potential threats and leads. Ol' Bill once met a giant snake in the swampy western wing of the dungeon. Captain Jill found a treasure room deep in the northern caverns, but her party was too wounded to cross the caves to get to it. The adventurer Will has been marking the paths to goblin camps with rocky cairns.

Resource management

Every choice to fight is a choice to expend resources. With a living dungeon even a choice to go home is a meaningful decision. Monsters reclaim cleared areas, things change.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome back, there's a nice old school vibe to this that really rings a bell. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 28 at 13:12
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Provide choices which affect the environment

Perhaps the dungeon is filled with fog and there is a demonically powered ventilation fan with a runestone loose. Placing the runestone back will clear out some of the fog but may result in traps coming back online - or worse yet, reactivate whatever the compound was originally supposed to do. How many misplaced runestones will you plug back in?

Perhaps most of the doors in the dungeon operated via water pressure - but the water pipes have been sealed off for some reason. You could progressively open up more of the water pipes again to open shortcuts or regions but there seem to be things in the sealed water pipes and they will get loose if open the system up. Plus the rate at which the place gets flooded the more often you do this.

Perhaps there is a delicate balance between two hostile forces in the dungeon. If you break down a barricade to the goblin's section, the giant ants are going to swarm that vulnerability - which means you don't want to be there when it happens and goblins will be pulled from other regions to hold the breach - which means other paths will become clear for your party.

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