Thursday, May 17, 2012

How To Design A Bad Dungeon

If you're looking to design a bad dungeon, you can take a few pointers from Dave Hargrave.  His most salient advice?  Secret doors.  Lots and lots of secret doors. 

Dave Hargrave designed four adventures for use with his Arduin Grimoire game system.  The first adventure, entitled "Caliban", was designed for 8th+ level characters.  Caliban is purported to be a ageless, self-aware, malign tower formerly lost to time and space and now revealed once more, for your looting pleasure. 

Caliban's adventure maps provide few hints of a towered structure.  Instead, Hargrave fills each dungeon map-page to the border with odd-sized rooms and interminable secret doors. 

The front and back covers are by one of my otherwise favorite Arduin illustrators, Brad Schenck.  The front cover is not one of his best efforts.

Brad Schenck's back cover is better, though still not stellar, by any stretch of the imagination.

Treasure: Living Scroll, Hell Hand, Demon Ring, Idol of Doom
Skeleton Key, Dragon Horn, Silver Cat's Garb, Black Belana's Garb

This adventure is accompanied by two sheets of cards, one containing treasures and the other one containing new monsters.

Monsters:  Death Tree, Kraken, Wardroid, Warwheel
Dragon Wurm, Phoenix, Death Hydra, Quetzocoatl

The artwork on both card sheets is by Greg Espinoza.


Obiri said...

If you actually expect your players to map, all of those odd shaped rooms is just cruel to both sides of the table. The pose of that woman looks very much like a certain red Mantis Assassin

Aaron E. Steele said...

There's another excellent piece of advice from Dave Hargrave. Design dungeon rooms that are difficult to describe.

biopunk said...


This dungeon reminds me of some of the "100 Level Dungeon" I bought from an ad in Dragon mag from the mid 80's.

Better art with this tho'...

biopunk said...

How does the living scroll work?

Melan said...

Spot on. I have also found Hargrave's dungeons to deliver very promising initial concepts (a tower that moves through space and time? a dungeon hidden behind an enormous waterfall guarded by soldiers mounted on flying sharks? Bring it on!) and a very shoddy execution.

The secret doors you mention are not just everywhere, they are purposeless. They do not usually lead to new and exciting new areas, just dead-end closets and more passages with more secret doors. And after a while, why care? It's no longer exciting to find one since there are so many.

I also have a problem with the described encounters, since there is often very little to do with them - long descriptions, but they tend to amount to "you are in this lavishly described room, and you are attacked by these monsters and after that, you find these treasures" - that is, functionally indistinguishable from the "10'x10' room - orc - pie" formula. They are exciting descriptions about the places and some of the monsters/treasures are very neat, but what you do with them is very routine.

I wanted to love the Arduin modules because their titles and descriptions suggested something otherworldly and imaginative, but they were all oddly disappointing. Maybe you had to be there; maybe Dave's sessions were tons of fun. But where I can't help but be excited by the early Jaquays and Bledsaw modules, Arduin strikes me as something that has not aged well.

Alexander Osias said...

That's why we took the "kick down doors and confuse the DM" approach, and just remember how we got there. I think both sides of the table were relieved.

Barking Alien said...

Sorry but as someone who largely dislikes the 'dungeon' concept I find that map AWESOME.

Finally something interesting looking and weird. And secret doors are a problem? Aren't you D&D guys all about secret doors?

I guess as an outsider I just don't see what is wrong with this adventure. Nothing in the post details what is bad about it. You say, "It has odd sized rooms and secret doors", but don't go on to mention, "which is bad because...XYZ".

Again, to my eyes this looks like every dungeon I've ever seen where the rooms aren't the same old box shapes. And frankly, the box shapes bore me. >Shrug<

Steamtunnel said...

I actually wonder if those are supposed to be secret doors or the result of some mapping symbol confusion. Maybe they are supposed to be 'S'tone doors or something? Cause that many secret doors is so "retro stupid" as to be almost unusable.

Cody said...
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Cody said...
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Melan said...

Unfortunately not. I checked my Arduin Grimoire (first volume), and the map there does have a legend - those are all secret doors.

JDJarvis said...

An elf or two in the party ans all those secret doors are even less useful.

Aracos said...

I see where you're coming from, and agree that "yet another square setup" is, well, boring. That's a problem I've had with sci-fi games in my group - other DMs tend to let them get all same-y in the name of "realism" without understanding that yes, you CAN give a starship personality, and yes, there ARE natural wonders, etc, even if you don't go the Star Wars Planet Gimmick route.

The reason this map is a "problem", though, isn't because it's not neatly square and angular, not directly. I'd love to adventure in twisty passages. The problem is that, at least from the one level we see a picture of, there's nothing that makes it look like a tower. It looks like a cave system designed to take up all of an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper with as little wasted space as possible.

(As an aside, why "crazy rooms" are considered poor form by many - in a lot of traditional games, the players are responsible for keeping track of where they are by themselves, and if they get lost, or can't figure out where to go, it's "their own fault". Usually, they try to map things as precisely as they can. Sometimes, this is actually great fun. Usually, it's also a challenge. Occasionally, it can lead to hilarity when you compare the two maps and say "Oh man, we were WRONG". On the other hand, sometimes, if the DM is insisting on having the players map, and then giving them really wonky rooms, and the map itself is as busy as this one, and the group is making it actually really matter, that can lead to bad blood when a "gotcha!" moment, accidental or no, jumps out because of poor mapping and/or inconsistent description and the like. That was a long aside. Maybe it should have been a paragraph.)

Aracos said...


Secret doors. Where do I start - secret doors are awesome and I love them. I love them in fantasy, in sci-fi, in modern settings...but mostly in moderation and as non-essentials. There are three things a secret door should never be:
- Essential. There should never, ever be Only One Way to "finish" a dungeon if that way is concealed behind a secret door. If the only way to level 4 is through a hidden passageway, and you miss the passageway, well, I guess the dungeon's over after level 3. If the only sword that can kill Count Gorgonzola is in a hidden alcove, and you miss the alcove, and you're fighting the Count...well, there are other ways to win besides "kill", but you get the picture. If missing your "notice things" check, or not making the right observation rolls or declarations makes your adventure dead-end or even just plain end, a secret door can go from being a magical thing to an awful idea.

- Boring. Whether or not there's anything there, the secret door should have something neat and exciting in some way behind it. It doesn't always have to be treasure - I've gotten great reactions from an empty alcove with an old gnawed shin-bone, and I've gotten people involved in the campaign world by lining a hidden hallway with historical frescoes - but it should never be BORING.

- Ubiquitous. Sure, I'm positive that there's a module out there that relies on the "Castle of 10,000 secrets" gimmick and all doors are hidden...but in general, the more secret doors you use, the more it becomes "okay, so where's the secret door in THIS room", and "oh, ho hum, another secret door, what does this one do". Without a proper framing gimmick, too, secret doors in sufficient number can really strain suspension of disbelief (the ninja's castle honeycombed by secret crawlspaces and sliding panels? Great! The wizard's tower containing teleportation points? Wonderful! The thieves' "batcave" has secret halls and rooms? Awesome! The knight's castle is riddled with all of the above? ..really..? The cave system has cleverly hidden doors, even though it's natural! ..are you kidding me..?).

I'm sorry for rambling, it's been a long day. Hope I've shed a little light on my perspective, at least.

Roger the GS said...

Belana seems an early example of the by-now-cliched "simultaneous T&A" pose.

iron said...

The Arduin modules are not the best of Hagrave's best work and Dave himself spoke openly of being displeased with them hoped to redo each one when he was still alive. Looking at his CoC scenario that he did a few years latter, I think he would of made something really great.

Regarding Calibian itself:m I found if you split up the dungeon it works MUCH better. The first three levels is very much in the spirit of Grimstone and the fourth level makes a great Underdark adventure. Some work on the GM's part is all that's needed.