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I would like to design a dungeon-like location, a city surrounding a keep built on a limestone hill littered with caves. Tunnels and caverns would connect certain city locations to keep dungeons but also to some natural formations, which are used as building parts, free storage space, or in some deeper cases unused, abandoned or unexplored. The whole structure has at least five levels, but unlike in premeditated multi-storey design, natural and organic cave formation does not follow a set of distinct, parallel "floors". And most importantly, I have to explain that network to players.

I'm looking for a good methodology of wholesome design and representation of a three-dimensional dungeon. It has to be representable on paper as a map (innovation welcome - folding paper structures?). It has to include non-sequential "levels" (e.g. ramps going through a level without accessing it or "half levels"). Is there any such methodology available to players, short of making a 3D model with Blender or something similar?


The map is supposed to help players realise which bits of the city are connected and what is required to travel underground. E.g. in Game of Thrones, you could travel by horse underground from the Red Keep dungeons to city docks. I want that fact to be immediately recognisable.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have players map as they go based on your verbal descriptions and the occasional sketch (the old school way), or will you be providing a map to them? \$\endgroup\$ – Thanuir Aug 13 '15 at 11:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Depends on the situation. I never use 5-foot grid maps for combat, but for easily accessible locations (town centers, overland navigation) I give maps upfront. It's not supposed to be a combat map, but a map that makes players realise relative distances between locations. \$\endgroup\$ – eimyr Aug 13 '15 at 12:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was thinking about dungeon map, not tactical maps. How do you handling navigation in a large dungeon complex, for instance? Do you show a map to players, handwave the navigation, have players draw the map, or something else? \$\endgroup\$ – Thanuir Aug 13 '15 at 13:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is something like the maps from the White Plume Mountain module not a sufficient guide for some reason? \$\endgroup\$ – GMNoob Aug 13 '15 at 15:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @eimyr From White Plume Mountain [spoilers!] \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 13 '15 at 18:36
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Forget about floors and levels, and think in sections.

Split the map into manageable sections. Each section could be a large room with several entries, a corridor with some rooms and two exits, etc. Give each section a name and each exit/entrance a number. While the players explore the complex, you just handle them the relevant map section, and make handwritten notes on which section/door connects to which section/door as the player discovers them. Or let the player make those notes themselves.

Additionally, in our group the DM usually keeps for himself a very simple flowchart detailing the sections and the connections between them, both for reference and as a place for writing quick notes about specific sections and rooms for whatever thing you see fit.

You really should not concern yourself with making perfectly realistic simulation of an underground complex, and your players probably do not need it neither.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would supplement this approach with a "graph" of all the relevant sections, represented as simple circles connected with lines, with the names of the sections and exits written on the nodes and links. The physical positions of the nodes on the map need not match the spatial relationships of the regions in the game world. I'd encourage the players to make their own such "world maps". This makes it easier for everyone to get from place to place without feeling like they're in a maze. \$\endgroup\$ – Doug Warren Aug 13 '15 at 17:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you like, you can make such box-and-line maps with this tool. It's designed for text adventures, but it should work reasonably well for this as well. \$\endgroup\$ – Kevin Aug 13 '15 at 18:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DougWarren In our group we use a flowchart for that, writen with freemind. But we ussually keep it as a DM only, for reference, and leave the players do the bookkeeping (mapkeeping?) work themselves. Will add the flowchart suggestion to the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – MACN Aug 13 '15 at 21:35
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Have a look at a map of any city subway system: the London Underground is the classic for this but any will do. These are not accurate tactical maps, they don't show distances and they don't relate directly to the overlying geography. This is perfectly fine because for their purpose none of that matters! Their purpose is to show that to get from point A to point B you need to change trains at C.

London Underground

If your players are laying out a sewerage system then they will need proper ordinance survey type maps. This does not sound like a fun RGP though.

A single one size fits all is inappropriate for a city/dungeon map. You need a map for travelling, a map for visualisation of important areas and a map of connections, one size does not fit all.

It is probably way more important to know that the lich's crypt connects to the king's bedroom and takes about 3 minutes to travel than that it is exactly 574 feet SSE and 121 feet below it.

Maps are for getting to places you are unfamiliar with. People do not use a map to navigate their home, to get from work to home, to visit their grandma or even to go 500km to their favourite holiday spot. Once you know where you are going you do not need a map.

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    \$\begingroup\$ However, subway systems are usually (mostly) 2D: where two lines cross there is usually a station where you can change trains. With many layers it becomes difficult to draw the lines between the connections (nodes) without much crossing of the connecting lines. \$\endgroup\$ – Pantalaimon Aug 13 '15 at 14:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ The convention on the London Underground is that a circle on an intersection indicates a station, and lines frequently cross each other without a connecting station. Using multiple colours of lines also helps with disambiguation crossings \$\endgroup\$ – Caleth Aug 13 '15 at 20:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Caleth I know; that is why I used 'mostly'. I don't disagree with Dale M's solution. I only wanted to point out that with more than 2 layers (which is what subway maps have at most); 'subway lines' going vertically etc, drawing such a map such that it is clear might not be trivial. \$\endgroup\$ – Pantalaimon Aug 14 '15 at 6:27
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I think what you are looking for might be isometric mapping, much like what we find in the Dragonlance series of modules.

This may not be the best representation, but it is the quickest I could find. Xak Tsaroth
(source: tbotr.net)

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Even if the system does not represent a collection of planar floors geometrically, it could still be close to one topologically. Perhaps you could represent it with a series of stacked two-dimensional, but not planar cuts? Basically have it organised in floors of sort, without requiring the elevation of all points on a floor to be constant. As long as all places within floor n are below the top of floor n+1 (or something similar), it should be reasonably navigatable.

It shouldn't really matter that the rooms/passages in one "floor" are not all at the same elevation (you can mark slope and relative altitude on the map). As long as the floor maps are correct topologically (e.g. rooms directly above each other are on different floors), it should be possible to use them just like normal flat floor maps.

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What you're describing -- a sprawling, unorganized network with no set floor structure -- doesn't really require a detailed representation of three dimensional spatial positioning, or at least not throughout the entirety of it. Think about it like this -- if you're travelling through a subway station to a different exit, is it really necessary for you to think about how the subway is underneath specific buildings in the city for you to get where you're going? The answer is (for most) no, you just follow a path through a stairwell or two and understand your heading that way, as a set path. Really, you just need to tell your players that "there's a tunnel connecting Building A to Building B underground, but Ruins C lies in the middle."

I personally prepare by deciding how much detail I need on a room-by-room basis. I would imagine that not every room in your dungeon is going to feature zero-G combat or something equally exotic -- surely there's going to be rooms in-between those scenes. Most of the time, combat is the only part of the game where exact spatial awareness becomes important. When you create a room (and by "room" I mean any meaningful space that the players travel through, separated by portals of some kind) you should decide at the time of its creation whether the players will be involved in any activity that would require awareness of all three dimensions. There's always going to be exceptions and emergent events that happen during play where the bard decides to swing on the chandelier or something, but you can deal with those and come up with distances and dimensions when it happens.

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The inhabitants of your city are facing the same problem (assuming they also mainly use paper or some other 2D surface for drawing maps) as you do.

So here is no solution to OP's mapping problem; instead a list of questions that might sprout some ideas both for the mapping and to enrich the city's background:

  • Does the city receive many visitors, traders, and others not intimately familiar with the city? How do these people do their navigating?
  • Do the citizens help them? If so, how?

    • Are most of the citizens helpful to people?
    • Are there specialized guides helping the lost foreigners finding their way?
  • Are there lots of sign posts?
  • Can visitors buy (or borrow) 3D mini-city statues that people use to navigate the city?
  • Do the cityzens have some schematic maps?
  • Is the city more or less isomorphic with some creature (or a set of creatures) familiar to the players and cityzens?

    “How can we get to the wizards' tower/fissure?”,

    “Ah the wizards' tower, that's not far from here. You're now in the dog's belly, go north east and then down to its front right paw. From there walk a tiny bit towards the snake's head and you'll see the wizard's tower. Can't miss it.”

  • Do most citizens never traverse the 3D maze at all; do they instead teleport from place to place?

  • Do they have smart horsen/mules/spiders that often know where to go?
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