This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.
MONDAY NIGHT. Many moons ago, the dwarven clanlords of Gar Morra and the human barons of Bael Nerath crafted a hammer symbolizing their alliance, and the weapon was blessed by exarchs of Moradin and Erathis. It was then placed in a neutral stronghold called Harth Fantaro, where it remained until a cataclysm caused the citadel to sink into the ocean. Still, the hammer remained safe inside its extradimensional vault, watched over by the vault's astral giant architect . . . or so the story goes.
At the end of paragon tier, the Monday night heroes made good on a promise and agreed to help the Deeplantern Guild (deep sea explorers) retrieve the Hammer of the Gods from Harth Fantaro, thinking it might fortify the squabbling dwarven clanholds and human baronies against the oppressive Dragovar Empire. The party found its way into the extradimensional vault and were confounded by a dungeon of shifting rooms, each one holding a small dwarven rune on a plate of burnished gold, and each one guarded by a puzzle, trap, or guardian. Only by retrieving all fifteen runes could they obtain the hammer, and even then, I threw in a couple of "curve balls" to turn the traditional "artifact hunt" adventure on its head. First and foremost, years of isolation had driven the astral giant mad, and a recent incursion by githyanki finally caused him to snap and regard all interlopers as enemies of Erathis and Moradin. Consequently, the dungeon's immortal architect believed the heroes to be githyanki, and attacked them at every turn. Second, the Hammer of the Gods did not actually exist—the heroes had to create it themselves using the runes scattered throughout the dungeon, which have the one-time power to turn any magical or masterwork hammer into the artifact.
The dungeon itself was a series of fifteen rooms with portals linking them, but the portal destinations would shift constantly, making it difficult for heroes to map the dungeon and find their way back to the entrance chamber. It seemed very appropriate for a dungeon hidden in the Astral Sea.
would argue (and have on several occasions) that being the editor of Dungeon magazine is the best job in the roleplaying game business. However, if someone told me I could make a career out of inventing and drawing dungeon maps, I might change my tune. I have a "thing" for D&D maps, you see.
Whereas normal people like to spend their Sundays watching football, catching a movie, visiting family, or surfing the Internet for porn, I would rather draw maps and work on my D&D campaign. Sadly, that isn't always possible. Case in point, I'm spending a Sunday afternoon writing this article. No offense, but I'd rather be designing an illithid stronghold, an archwizard's tomb, or a dragon's lair!
My earliest dungeon maps were inspired by the sprawling, Gygaxian complexes featured in early TSR products. Each level filled an entire sheet of graph paper and had the logic of a Pokémon episode, but all those meandering corridors and awkwardly shaped rooms spoke volumes about the madness of their architects. They were built to torment and confound intruders.
In the 1980s and 90s, dungeons evolved. We saw fewer labyrinthine complexes infested with bizarre menageries of monsters in favor of smaller dungeons, with arrangements of rooms and corridors that made internal sense while still proving deadly to unwanted interlopers. Dungeon designers began to think more logically, asking questions such as: Where do the monsters get their food? Where do they dispose of their garbage and go to the bathroom? What keeps the monsters from killing one another?
Today, dungeons have taken a back seat to story, to the extent that some adventures and campaigns do without them. It's true! The kid in me is saddened by the fact that D&D has, for many people (including myself), "evolved" beyond the simple joy of cracking open a long-lost dungeon and spending session after session plumbing its depths for treasure and defeating monsters and traps along the way. Byzantine dungeons have been forsaken in favor of event-driven scenarios and clever plots. There have been a few memorable exceptions, mind you. Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil was very much a campaign set in a dungeon, with a thick layer of dungeon politics just to make things more interesting. Before that, we had the Night Below and Ruins of Undermountain boxed sets, which also promised and delivered subterranean campaigns.
Now, before you think I'm a D&D puritan or an old-school dungeon-hugger, let it be known that I run a 4th Edition campaign that has shockingly few dungeons. Iomandra is a world shattered into thousands of tiny islands, each one a potential adventure location with its own perils, and yet I can count on one hand the number of sprawling dungeons my Monday and Wednesday night groups have explored. Almost all of the action takes place on ships or aboveground. In my campaign, underground exploration is usually limited to sea caves, castle dungeons, and city sewers. Furthermore, such excursions rarely demand more than a session or two. To date, there have been only three elaborate dungeons that required considerable exploration time—a yuan-ti prince's tomb located on the party's home island of Irindol (heroic tier), a sunken dwarven stronghold with an extradimensional vault (paragon tier), and a crashed flying citadel buried under a mile-thick glacier (epic tier).
Iomandra is a campaign about island nations at war. The prevailing nautical theme makes it hard to justify the inclusion of more than a few monstrous dungeons. For me, this focus been mostly a blessing, since it takes a lot of time and effort to create a sprawling dungeon complex, stock it, and find ways to keep the PCs engaged week after week. Tedious dungeons are like pools of thick mud; they can slow the campaign to a crawl and make the players forget they're supposed to be having fun.
Even though my campaign doesn't focus on dungeon exploration, I use dungeons as a way to defy player expectations. When the Monday group finally decided to retrieve the Hammer of the Gods from the sunken dwarven stronghold, they were not expecting to find themselves trapped in a sprawling extradimensional dungeon complex. They were surprised and delighted when, after eight or so rooms, they still hadn't found their prize. I think the exact words were, "OMG! We're in a dungeon!" The Wednesday group had a similar reaction recently, when their hunt for a pair of fugitives — the nefarious Kharl Mystrum and Nemencia Xandros — led them into the heart of a fallen citadel buried under ice. There's nothing like a dungeon that creeps up on your players and swallows their characters before they know it!
It almost goes without saying that the best dungeons have strong ties to the themes and/or stories of your campaign, that whatever decisions the PCs make in the dungeon will not only determine the party's fate but also the inform the direction of the campaign going forward. That's better than the alternative: a dungeon that is merely a distraction, with no lasting impact on the campaign whatsoever.
The problem with good dungeons is that they aren't easy to make. Some people are masters at it; for others, it's a real chore. That's why we have downloadable dungeon-building software that lets us create sprawling (albeit unimaginative and repetitive) dungeon levels with a few mouse clicks. Even better, we have a Google search engine; all one needs to do is type in the words "dungeon maps" to see dozens of cleverly designed dungeon complexes ripe for plunder, including several that your players aren't likely to recognize.
Rather than belabor the obvious, let me do us all a service here. Thousands of people read this column every week, and I know some small percentage of you folks are dungeon builders extraordinaire. In the interest of giving us all more dungeons to choose from, I propose the following contest:
Dungeons Map Contest!
Design an original dungeon map and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org as a JPG or PDF, along with a short paragraph describing who built it and why. (I'm referring not to you, but to the dungeon's in-game architect and purpose.) It can be anything, from a Gygaxian sprawl to something more "contained." For complete contest rules, eligibility requirements (sorry Quebec), and deadlines, click here.
I'll include the winning entries in an upcoming column and explain why I think they're awesome, and other DMs will be free to plunder them for their home campaigns. How cool is that? And if no one submits an entry, I'll stop writing this column and go back to designing my own dungeon maps on rainy Sunday afternoons . . . and I won't share them, either. So there.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Previous Poll Results
Are you sick to death of D&D website polls?
|Pointless ones like this, yes. Thought-provoking ones, no.
|Not at all. They give me something else to do instead of work.
|No. In fact, you should do more of them!
|Heck no! They help me sleep at night.
|Whatever. I don't respond to polls.
|Ye gods, yes! Enough already! P.S. Thanks for listening, jerk.
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #57
Which of the following old-school dungeon maps do you like best? (See map illustrations below)
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.