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Back to the Dungeon
Design & Development
Matt James

S ince I was a young lad, I have always dreamed of working on Dungeons & Dragons. Now that I'm a freelance game designer, it never ceases to amaze me how much I still get giddy about these assignments. In June of 2011, I received an email from D&D producer Greg Bilsland. The first sentence was enough to capture my attention, and I don't honestly remember reading the rest of it. It simply said:

Hey Matt,

I'd like to offer you the opportunity to work on an upcoming project currently titled Dungeoneer's Handbook.

I was in! Not only would I get the opportunity to write more material for the game I've loved for so long, I would be working on a new version of a classic title. The decision to take on the project, however, did not come without some reservations. At the time, production of a film I'd recently gotten funded was in full swing—I had to figure out a way to navigate the tumultuous schedule that lay ahead. Naturally, I wanted to make it work. Already idea after idea was flooding into my head.

Here's how I began my journey into the depths of assorted dungeon landscapes.

Bringing Dungeons back to Dungeons & Dragons

The project lead was Logan Bonner, a good friend and excellent game designer, so I knew that I'd be tasked to design content that was at the same time compelling, fresh, and strongly tied into D&D's storied history. It's always a big challenge to present something new while, at the same time, respecting what has come before. It's a balancing act that's very hard to perfect.

The chance to have several consultations with Robert J. Schwalb (another good friend), was a distinct boon during this process. Rob had written the highly detailed outline for this project (because he was originally slated to be the lead designer). This outline was invaluable to the design process, providing crucial insight into the content and a clear vision for what the final product would be. I vividly recall his emphasis that this book needed to practically radiate a sense of adventure and invoke feelings of seat-grabbing exhilaration. This, of course, made me immediately think of movies such as Indiana Jones. I wanted to create that kind of visceral experience, and give a throwback to the pulp adventure stories of the 1940s. I wanted to design content that promoted high-action exploration and discovery in fantastical locations.

For fun, I've included a photo that Logan Bonner sent to us during the design process. It represents our progress as we worked on the book. As each segment was completed, we moved deeper into the dungeon. So yes, game design can be just as much fun as it sounds!


I pored through my library of D&D books, searching for supplements from the past that provided that kind of feeling. I spent a lot of time rereading content from every edition and thinking about how best to bring all that to bear in a product made specifically for 4E. It had to have a classic feeling without simply repeating ideas that had come before. It had to balance the wide open, anything can happen feeling of the earlier editions with the mechanical precision of the latest material. Not a simple task, let me tell you.

In the end, I hope that we succeeded in creating a book that defines a new design-space within the 4E game—one that inspires Dungeon Masters and players alike take their games in interesting directions. I think even longtime D&D players will find some new concepts presented in the book, and hopefully it can rekindle the joy of dungeon exploration. Because at its heart, that's what D&D is all about.

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